Prevention is the key to surviving tick season in Kentucky, which runs through August; here are some tips

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

With outdoor summer activities in full swing, it’s important to remember that tick season, which runs from mid-March through August in Kentucky, is upon us.

American dog tick

Ticks hang out in tall grass, woods, low-hanging tree limbs and weeds just waiting to attach themselves to you or your pets to “feed,” a polite way to say they want to suck some blood. And while that is reason enough to avoid them, the real problem is that ticks can carry potentially life-threatening infections, like Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Erlichiosis.

“The most prevalent tick-borne disease in Kentucky is and has been for a long time Rocky Mountain spotted fever,” or RMSF, Grayson Brown, director of the University of Kentucky Public Health Entomology Laboratory, told Kentucky Health News. “We get somewhere between 10 and 30 cases of that a year.”

RMSF is transmitted by the American dog tick, which is about the size of a pencil eraser. It is the second most common tick in the state, according to Kentucky Pest News. The greatest risk of getting RMSF in Kentucky is in the western part of the state, near the Land Between the Lakes, said Brown.

RMSF usually begins with a sudden onset of fever and headache that appear from two to 14 days after being bitten by an infected tick. Other symptoms can include nausea, muscle pain, lack of appetite and a rash that occurs two to five days after the fever. RMSF can be fatal in the first eight days of symptoms if not treated correctly, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lone Star Tick, all images Wikipedia

Kentucky’s most common tick is an aggressive biter called the lone star tick, which is also about the size of a pencil eraser, says Kentucky Pest News.

The saliva from this tick can produces painful, itchy areas that can become infected from scratching. It can transmit Erlichiosis, a Lyme-like disease that can cause fever, headache, chills, muscle pain and in some cases a rash. These symptoms usually show up one to two weeks after being bitten by an infected tick. It can also transmit RMSF.

And though it is not very common, Kentucky is also home to the blacklegged tick, which is known to transmit Lyme disease. This tick is much smaller than the other two more common ones.

“The number of Lyme disease cases is increasing quite rapidly, with 13 or so last year that were reported,” Brown said. “The blacklegged tick is found most commonly around rivers and so the river areas, along the Ohio River, the Kentucky River . . . that is where the biggest risk is going to be.

Black-legged Tick

Symptoms of Lyme disease can range from mild to severe and include fever, headache, fatigue and a skin rash that looks like a bull’s-eye, although not everyone has this rash, says the CDC. If left untreated, the infection can spread to joints, the heart or the nervous system. Lyme disease is most prevalent in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Upper Midwestern states, so be mindful if you travel.

Infection from these diseases is unlikely in Kentucky because very few ticks in the state are infected with their respective diseases. And even if the ticks are infected, they must be attached and feeding for at least 12 to 24 hours to transmit its infection, says Kentucky Pest News. This makes self-inspection and prompt removal of ticks an important line of defense against these diseases.

Getting a tick borne disease in Kentucky “is something like the risk of getting struck by lightning,” Brown said.

The best way to avoid being bitten by ticks is to use “common sense precautions,” Brown said. Here are some tips:

  • Keep grass and shrubs trimmed, and clear away any overgrown vegetation in your yard;
  • Don’t walk through uncut fields, brush and overgrown areas;
  • Walk in the center of hiking trails;
  • Wear light-colored clothing, which make it easier to spot ticks;
  • Wear long pants tucked into boots or socks and tuck your shirt into your pants;
  • Place a band of duct tape, sticky side out, around your lower legs to trap ticks;
  • Use tick repellent that has DEET or picaridin in it or use permethrin-based clothing sprays;
  • Do a body and clothing check at the end of each day;
  • Take a warm soapy shower after potential exposure;
  • Check your pets.

It is also important to promptly and properly remove ticks by grasping them as close to the skin as possible with tweezers and then pulling straight out with gentle, even pressure. Multiple sources say to not use petroleum jelly, gasoline, hot matches or other “folk” methods to remove ticks. Once removed, wash the bite area, apply antiseptic and cover with a Band-Aid.

The CDC has recommended washing tick-infested clothes and then drying them for one hour, but new research, published online in the journal Ticks and Tick-borne Diseases, says putting dry, tick-infected clothes in a hot dryer and spinning them for six minutes will kill them, Ann Lukits reports for The Wall Street Journal.

Brown said May is the month when you are most likely to encounter “pathogen-bearing ticks,” but you can still get infected at other times. Tick season generally runs through August

He also noted that tick-borne diseases primarily occur in rural settings because wildlife, especially deer, often covered in ticks, and field mice, because ticks can transmit diseases to them and then the infected mice can infect other ticks as they feed.

“So if you are really worried about those things,” Brown said, “pay attention to the wildlife that you have or that you attract to your property.”

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