By: Kaitlyn Eichelberger
Ticks. If you’ve spent time outside, you’ve most likely encountered them. Even if you think you haven’t, many tick bites go unnoticed. This is what makes it so important to protect yourself, your children and your pets.
Increase of tick-borne diseases in West Virginia
Cases of tick-borne diseases have been steadily increasing in West Virginia. As reported by the CDC, 297 cases of Lyme disease were recorded in 2016. This number has more than tripled since then, with preliminary reports suggesting 1,542 cases in 2021.
“Cases of tick-borne disease are rising in West Virginia for several reasons,” said Timothy Driscoll, associate professor of WVU’s Department of Biology and principal investigator for the Vector-borne Disease Laboratory. “As temperatures rise due to climate change, our winters are no longer dominated by consistent cold periods. This allows ticks to be active for more days during the year; it also means we (and our pets) spend more time outdoors.
“There is clear evidence that the number of ticks carrying the Lyme disease agent has substantially increased over the past few years.”
Local research efforts
Driscoll explained local efforts to study and prevent Lyme disease and other zoonotic diseases.
“At the Vector-borne Infectious Disease Laboratory, we study zoonotic pathogens: microscopic organisms like bacteria and viruses that live primarily in animals, but can jump over to humans and cause serious disease,” he said. “With this information, we can design better tests and treatments for these diseases. We have several tick-borne projects, including the design of a vaccine for Lyme disease.”
The Vector-borne Infectious Disease Laboratory is a research group in West Virginia University’s Department of Biology.
There are plenty of ways to avoid ticks.
Light-colored clothing allows you to spot ticks before they reach your skin. Tucking your pants into your shoes and tucking your shirt into your waistband is another way to keep them off your skin, making them easier to remove.
In order to avoid them, know when and where you’re most likely to encounter ticks.
“Ticks are active pretty much year-round on warmer days,” said Jamie Moore, Monongalia County Health Department’s Threat Preparedness program manager. “Peak is late April through August, although [they’re] active in fall as well.”
“Ticks like warm, damp environments,” said Driscoll. “If you live near a pond, or wooded area, keep the area around your residence clear of tall grass and standing water as much as possible.”
Those with hobbies or occupations that require time spent outdoors should be diligent, Driscoll said.
“Any work or hobbies that find you spending a lot of time outdoors increases your contact with ticks and, subsequently, your chance of contracting a tick-borne illness,” Driscoll said. “Children are usually higher risk because of this, as are occupations like U.S. Forest Service workers.”
Bug spray is another way to ward off ticks. The CDC recommends products containing Environmental Protection Agency-registered ingredients.
After spending time outdoors, take these steps to confirm you’re free of any hitch-hiking arachnids.
“Ticks don’t like dry conditions,” Driscoll said, “running your clothing in the dryer for 10-15 minutes is enough to kill them.”
Shower to wash off any unattached ticks.
Check your skin. Pay close attention to the backs of your knees, your hair, waist, belly button, underarms, in/around your ears and in between your legs — these are places where ticks may go undetected.
Despite your best efforts, there’s still a chance you may need to remove a tick that has latched onto you or someone else. Rather than panic in the moment, it’s best to prepare ahead of time.
Ensure you have the proper tools to remove an attached tick. The CDC recommends the use of fine-tipped tweezers.
Firmly grasp the tick, then pull upwards steadily. Yanking, twisting, or pulling at an angle may cause part of the tick’s body to break off.
After removing the tick, wash the area with rubbing alcohol or soap and monitor the wound.
Dispose of the tick by placing it in alcohol, secure it by wrapping it in tape or placing it in a sealed container, or flush it down the toilet.
In the event that you do start displaying symptoms of illness, knowing the species of tick that bit you can help determine your diagnosis and treatment. Familiarize yourself with the tick species found in your area. The American dog tick, blacklegged tick and lone star tick are some common species in West Virginia. They carry diseases such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Anaplasmosis, Ehrlichiosis and Lyme disease.
The Monongalia County Health Department Threat Preparedness Division is available to assist with tick identification.
After removing a tick, the CDC recommends that you monitor for symptoms in the 30 days following.
Symptoms of various tick-borne diseases include rash, fever, chills, headache, muscle pain, joint pain, swelling, or stiffness, nausea, diarrhea and confusion.
The Monongalia County Health Department advises all people exposed to a tick bite to speak to their doctor to determine the best course of action.
Don’t forget your pets
Dogs and cats can also be infected with tick-borne diseases. As reported by the Companion Animal Parasite Council, instances of this are becoming more common. In the past five years, cases of canine Lyme disease in West Virginia increased from 4,366 in 2018 to 12,189 in 2021.
Prevention includes topical or oral tick treatment, a canine Lyme disease vaccine and pet-safe insect deterrents. Discuss these options with your vet.
Examine your pet for ticks regularly. Pay close attention to their ears, eyelids, toes, tail, under their collar, between their back legs and under their front legs.
If a tick has attached itself, remove it in the same way you would for yourself.
Watch your pet for symptoms such as joint pain, swelling, or stiffness, fatigue, fever and loss of appetite.