A deer tick, or black-legged tick, reaches its front legs out as it looks for a host on a blade of grass.

A deer tick, or black-legged tick, reaches its front legs out as it looks for a host on a blade of grass.

Photo provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Tick, tick, tick: Tick-borne illnesses are a race against the clock

By: Mary Beth Almond | C&G Newspapers | Published June 11, 2018

 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently posted a photo on Twitter of a poppyseed muffin covered in immature ticks, called nymphs, to warn the public about how to prevent tick bites.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently posted a photo on Twitter of a poppyseed muffin covered in immature ticks, called nymphs, to warn the public about how to prevent tick bites.

METRO DETROIT — Whether you’re camping, hiking or playing in your own backyard, a threat no larger than a poppy seed lurks.

Tick season is here, and according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, tick-borne illnesses — particularly Lyme disease — are expanding across the state. 

Erik Foster, a medical entomologist for the MDHHS, said Michigan’s tick population is seeing an uptick. 

“We have seen increases over the past several years in our tick population,” Foster said. “Notably … the black-legged, or deer, tick. This tick has been expanding its geographic range in Michigan and its population numbers over the past couple of decades.” 

Lyme disease-infected ticks have been identified in 34 of Michigan’s 83 counties. In Michigan, Foster said, the black-legged tick is the only type that transmits Lyme disease, but he noted that not every tick of that species is necessarily infected.  

Last year, more than 300 human cases of Lyme disease were reported in Michigan, and approximately two out of three cases reported exposure to the black-legged tick. Lyme disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is a bacterial infection that produces a wide range of symptoms — including fever, headache, swollen lymph nodes, muscle pain, rash, facial paralysis, arthritis and more. The most common symptom associated with Lyme disease is a bull’s-eye rash that appears around the tick bite after a few days in approximately 70-80 percent of people infected with Lyme disease, according to the CDC.

Although tick exposure can happen year-round, ticks are most active during the warmer months, when people are also spending more time outside.

“In the early part of the year, the adult black-legged ticks are out and they are a little bit bigger — they are the largest of the life stage, about the size of an apple seed. But already we are starting to see the dangerous stage of this tick, which is the second phase, the nymph ticks. They are the most dangerous at this stage because they are so small, about the size of a poppy seed, and they may be infected with Lyme disease bacteria,” said Foster.

Ticks — which can’t jump or fly — often wait at the tips of overgrown grass or in brush or leaf litter, holding their first pair of legs outstretched and ready to latch onto a passing host. 

“They are honestly not predisposed to feeding on people. They just get onto us when we are in their habitat,” Foster explained. “They are generally looking for other animals to feed on. They complete their life cycle on small mammals, such as rodents and white-tailed deer, especially in rural areas, where the wildlife populations are plentiful.” 

It may sound obvious, but Foster said the easiest way to protect yourself from Lyme disease is to avoid being bitten by ticks — which lurk in backyards, parks, trails and other wooded or grassy areas, especially where deer and other wildlife are present. 

Before heading outdoors this summer, Foster recommends that people spray Environmental Protection Agency-approved insect repellents that contain DEET, picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus on clothing and any exposed skin. 

When in the woods or other tick-prone areas, Foster suggests that people wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants tucked into socks and closed-toe shoes to reduce the risk of ticks crawling under clothing and attaching to skin. Hiking in the center of a trail to avoid brushing up against plants on the edges where ticks wait is another easy way to reduce exposure.

To prevent ticks in your yard, officials recommend removing all leaf litter, clearing tall grasses and brush, regularly mowing the lawn, and stacking wood neatly and in a dry area to discourage rodents, which are often hosts for ticks. The use of pesticides can also help reduce ticks, according to the CDC.

Pets, which can come into contact with ticks and carry them into your home or car, also need to be protected. Health officials suggest talking to your veterinarian about the best tick prevention product for your pet.

After any outdoor adventure, it’s important to shower immediately to wash off any ticks that have not yet attached to skin, and to perform frequent tick checks on family members. Foster recommends paying special attention to the areas of the body where ticks commonly bite — including behind the knee, the waistline, the groin, the armpits, behind the ears, around the neck and in the hairline.

If you do find a tick on your body, the most important thing is to remove it as quickly as possible. While there are several tick removal devices on the market, Foster said a plain set of fine-tipped tweezers work just as well. The key, he said, is to use the tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible and to pull upward with steady, even pressure. 

“You don’t want to jerk it. You don’t want to twist it, because then you have the possibility of the mouthparts breaking under the skin. While that is not any more dangerous in regards to disease, it could get infected,” Foster explained.

If the mouthparts of the tick break off and remain in the skin, they should be removed with tweezers. Once the tick has been completely removed, officials say to clean the bite area — and your hands — with rubbing alcohol or soap and water, apply an antibacterial cream to the site of the bite, and make an appointment with your doctor if necessary.

“If you find a tick attached to your body, promptly remove it. Monitor your health, and if you experience fever, rash, muscle or joint aches, or other symptoms, consult with your medical provider,” Dr. Eden Wells, MDHHS chief medical executive, said in a statement. 

Early detection is key, because if a tick is attached to your body for less than 24-36 hours, Foster said, the chance of getting Lyme disease is very small. 

“You want to get them off of you as soon as possible, because it takes anywhere from 36-plus hours for the bacteria that causes Lyme disease to be transmitted, so if you can remove the tick, say, in a couple of hours, even if that tick was infected, you will likely not get Lyme disease,” he explained.

Treatment in the early stages of Lyme disease usually leads to complete recovery, he said.

Michigan residents can submit ticks to the MDHHS for identification and possible Lyme disease testing, free of charge. Residents can also send electronic photos of ticks to the MDHHS for identification to MDHHS-Bugs@michigan.gov. 

“This year we have already identified well over 100 ticks from the public,” Foster said. 

For more information, visit michigan.gov/lyme.