By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News
A warmer February in Kentucky has likely contributed to an uptick in ticks, and Kentuckians aren’t happy about it. Some even sound ticked off.
“We just had the seventh hottest February on record, so some of our [tick] species are going to be more successful because they weren’t exposed to as harsh of a winter as they might otherwise have been,” said Jonathan Larson, an extension entomologist at the University of Kentucky. “They got a head-start on the season.”
The longer season, combined with with Kentucky’s tick-friendly living conditions, has resulted in more calls about ticks than Larson has had in the four years he’s been at UK.
“The tenor of calls and inquiries, they’re sort of angrier” than in previous years, Larson said. “It seems like people are seeing more of them on their property and getting more on themselves and their animals and are just very agitated by it – understandably so.”
William May of Versailles is one of those ticked-off people. In late April, he told Kentucky Health News that he was overrun with ticks on his 17 acres and said he believes they are largely being carried onto his property by deer. Just about any wild animal can carry ticks, including birds and mice, of which Larson said Kentucky has an abundance.
May was recovering from a bout of Rocky Mountain spotted fever when he talked to KHN, and said he had had Lyme disease last year. Both diseases are carried by ticks.
“Ticks didn’t used to be like this,” he said. “Just in my yard, the numbers are astronomical. It was never like this before.”
Joe Lacefield, a regional wildlife biologist at the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife, said most of Central Kentucky has a “very high deer density.”
He said some counties control the tick population is by allowing hunters to get tags to harvest unlimited numbers of antlerless deer, but these unlimited harvests have resulted in a 50/50 split between male and female deer, so it has done little to control the population growth.
The tick problem in Kentucky isn’t going away because Kentucky provides a perfect home for the arachnids – with its warm, humid summer days, an abundance of wooded, leafy areas in both rural and urban places, and plenty of other hosts to feast upon.“It’s just kind of an unfortunate situation that Kentucky seems to becoming Kenticky,” said Larson. “There’s just a lot of opportunity for them here in the state.”
What can Kentuckians do to protect their property from ticks? Larson said any sort of brush management will reduce the tick population because it removes their habitat and places for their hosts to hide. He also suggests fencing to deter deer and other wildlife that carry ticks. A fence also helps with perimeter spraying with an insecticide-arachnicide such as Bifenthrin every few weeks, he said.
Larson said the best way to avoid getting bitten by a tick is to wear an insect repellent, such as diethyltoluamide, or Deet, when they are outside. And for those who don’t like to wear Deet, he suggested using oil of lemon eucalyptus, IR 3535, or picaridin. All of these products are readily available at stores.
“Putting on that 40 percent Deet product that you find at the store will give you a good level of protection,” Larson said. “If you’re sweating a lot, or if you’re going to be outside for an extended period, maybe moving up to the Deet 80 percent or Deet 100 percent would be advisable, because they’ll last longer and give you the longer-term protection that you need.”
Other ways to protect yourself from ticks include wearing light-colored clothing, so ticks can be spotted more easily; tucking pants legs into socks or boots and shirttails into pants; taping the area where pants and socks meet, so ticks can’t crawl under your clothes; walking in the center of trails, and avoiding other tick-likely areas.
Also important: Check for ticks every time you come inside from being outdoors as long as 10 minutes. And if you’ve been out longer, Larson said you should disrobe and check your whole body, especially around ankles, waist, navel, armpits and the nape of the neck. And check pets for ticks.If you get a tick, Larson said it’s important to remove it properly by grasping it as close to the skin as possible with a pair of tweezers and pulling it straight out with gentle, even pressure.
He said it is also important to not use home remedies to remove ticks, such as burning them off or putting alcohol or peanut butter on them, because those remedies only aggravate the situation.
“All of that agitates the tick as they’re feeding on you and it could induce them to puke . . . into your bloodstream,” Larson said. The tick’s gut is where disease-causing agents reside.
Larson also encouraged people to save any ticks they remove from their bodies in alcohol or nail-polish remover to help health-care providers make a diagnosis if they see symptoms of a tick-borne illness. This is important because symptoms don’t always show up immediately.
The state Department for Public Health says, “Watch for symptoms for 30 days after tick bites. Call your healthcare provider is you get any of the following: rash, fever, fatigue, headache, muscle pain, or joint swelling and pain.”
Click here to learn more about tick-borne diseases in Kentucky. The website has much information, including these maps, which show the average annual case rates, by county, for the top three tick-borne diseases in Kentucky: Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ehrlichiosis and Lyme disease.