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Is that a tick? Be wary of this pest’s peak season

  • An adult deer tick.



Recorder Staff
Monday, May 30, 2016

ERVING — It started as a tiny tickle on my leg while waiting to speak with a state trooper at the scene of a two-car crash on the side of Route 2 in Erving last Thursday morning.

A quick check under my right pant leg revealed a tiny, flat dog tick, crawling away in search of a feast. “Not so fast, little guy,” I thought, and sent him flying into the underbrush with a flick of my finger.

Once my reporting was complete, I figured if there’s one tick, there might be more, so I decided to double check. Good call — my shoes and the lower part of my jeans were under attack by not one or two, but at least eight more ticks.

No bites, forunately, but I spent the next half-hour picking them from my laces and combing the floor mats of my car for more stowaways. I later located another skittering across the roof.

Stephen Rich, the director of the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Laboratory of Medical Zoology, was not surprised when I recounted my tale; he said this is peak season for these annoying arachnids.

“Ticks have very strict seasonal activity,” Rich said. “They start up in early April as adult ticks and grow in number, peaking right around now.”

Those large adult ticks, which seek out hosts to harvest blood from before moving on to the nymph stage of their life cycle, are the easiest to notice when they’ve latched on to you, and they’re also the most dangerous.

“The bigger the tick, the older the tick,” Rich said. “That means they’ve had more experience and are more likely to pick up infections and give them to you.”

Smaller, younger ticks are less of a threat, but can still pass on serious conditions like Lyme disease. Often, they’re able to feed longer because their smaller size — sometimes the size of poppy seed, Rich said — makes them harder to detect. Those ticks are active between May and the end of July, he said.

Deer ticks currently pose the biggest threat, since they’re the most common carriers of Lyme and other dangerous diseases, Rich said.

Dog ticks — the sort I battled last week — are rarely associated with Lyme, he said — only about one and every 250 are carriers — but they can carry other diseases like Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Tularemia, a bacterial infection that can be fatal, but is much rarer than Lyme disease.

Rich said the area has also begun seeing a new type of tick, the Lone Star tick, that’s been moving north due to global climate change. Those ticks, he said, are much more aggressive than the former two, and they’ll actually seek out and attack hosts instead of waiting on a branch to grab them.

“They’re still pretty uncommon, but these ticks will actually walk toward you, and they’re very fast, like ants,” Rich said. They can be identified by a characteristic white dot on their backs — their namesake.

Rich said the best step anyone can take for preventing tick bites is to wear clothing that has been treated with permethrin, a chemical that’s toxic upon contact with a tick but safe for human exposure.

For people who don’t want to do that, he said, the best option is to remain vigilant, check yourself regularly and remove ticks as soon as possible. To do that, Rich recommends using a very fine-tipped tweezer, snagging the mouth of the tick and pulling it out using even pressure. Don’t twist, and if you leave the mouth parts behind, remove it like a sliver of wood. At that point, they pose no threat of infection.

“If you take it off within 24 hours, you’ve likely avoided any infection that may have come to you,” he said.

If you do get bit, the Laboratory offers tick testing services at tickreport.com. A standard test is $50.

You can reach Tom Relihan at: trelihan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 264 On Twitter, follow @RecorderTom