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Late summer and early fall are great times to get outdoors, but that doesn’t mean all is good and pleasant out there.
Spend a day afield and there’s a chance you’ll come back with more than pleasant memories and photos.
You may pick up a pesky hitchhiker or two.
Ticks are out there perched on their grassy lairs, just waiting to jump on the next victim, be it a mouse, a rabbit, a deer or you.
If you’re lucky you’ll feel the crawly critter and pick it off before it sinks its head into your flesh.
Not lucky, and you’ll have to pluck the blood-engorged creature off.
Really not lucky?
You could be in for medical treatment if the tick happens to be carrying Lyme disease.
The Virginia Department of Health reports that the tick population is increasing in the state, along with diseases borne by the insects.
Wet weather earlier this spring and summer and a rise in the rodent population are factors in the tick population surge, says Dr. Laura Gateley. The wet weather lead to more foliage, and ticks like tall grass or tall weeds near forested areas.
Woodpiles attract rodents that commonly host ticks.
Gateley says Virginia had 1,245 reported cases of tick-borne Lyme disease in 2009, up from 1,000 in 2008. In 2010, three deaths from other tick-borne illnesses were reported, two from Rocky Mountain spotted fever and one from ehrlichiosis.
They want to suck your blood
Although there are hundreds of tick species in the world and about 80 in the United States, only a dozen are of much concern in this country.
In Virginia, the Lone Star and dog ticks were, until recently, the two species that were known to attach to humans.
And while the dog tick is a known transmitter of the potentially fatal Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, that disease is rare.
Mostly, a bite was just an annoyance.
Tick awareness has risen recently as blacklegged ticks have become more common in Virginia.
Also known as deer ticks, blacklegged ticks are the only known transmitter of Lyme disease, a nasty malady that can cause headaches, fatigue, fever and skin rashes. Left untreated, Lyme disease can lead to serious neurological and joint problems.
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection has been around for ages but has become better known since the mid 1970s, when a rash of cases occurred in Lyme, Ct.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 98 percent of Lyme disease cases are associated with bites from the nymphal stage of the blacklegged tick.
At that stage, the ticks are only about the size of a pinhead so they can be difficult to find.
Not coincidentally, as whitetail deer populations have boomed, Lyme disease cases have been rising steadily over the past three decades, to a high of 28,921 confirmed cases nationally in 2008, according to the CDC.
Of those cases, 886 were in Virginia, a nearly eight-fold increase since 1999.
The good news?
The incidence rate is still just 11.4 confirmed cases per 100,000 people, meaning Lyme disease is still rare.
Being nailed by a tick that is carrying the Lyme disease bacteria doesn’t ensure that the victim will contract the disease.
Chances of the tick passing along the disease in the first 24 hours of feeding are miniscule.
Caught early, Lyme disease is treatable with antibiotics.
Cases left untreated for a long time may be more difficult to defeat but a full recovery is usually possible.
The best medicine
Yes, the chance of contracting Lyme disease or other illness is a long shot even if a tick gets you. But why take the chance?
A few simple precautions can help keep ticks (and other pesky critters) at bay.
Insect repellents with DEET will keep ticks off of skin, and will also work against mosquitoes, which are not only annoying but can also carry diseases, including the dangerous West Nile virus.
Liberally dousing clothing with a tick- and mosquito-killing permethrin-based repellent such as Repel Permanone will also help.
New Jersey resident Stacie Wiltshire, who grew up in Southwest Virginia and often returns to visit, said she is a fan of Repel Permanone.
“I spray the outside of all of our shoes after winter and then I will re-apply once a month during the spring/summer/fall,” she wrote in an e-mail. “On occasion if we are riding four-wheelers, I will spray our pants before we wear them and let the pants completely dry.
“Follow the directions on the can and you will enjoy a tick-free season.”
Wearing light-colored clothing can be helpful because ticks can be easier to spot. Tucking pant legs into socks can also help keep ticks from getting on the bare skin of legs.
After spending time outdoors it always pays to do a thorough inspection for ticks. They often seek out dark, warm places so leave no body part unturned.
A tick that is already attached should be carefully pulled out with tweezers. Traditional methods such as dousing the pest with gasoline, or burning it with a match, are unnecessary and not effective.
The bite area should be disinfected with rubbing alcohol or other topical disinfectant.
Ticks can be saved for testing.
Store live ticks in a plastic bag with a blade or two of grass. Dead ticks can be stored in rubbing alcohol.
Watch the bite area for signs of an infection, such as a rash.
Often, even if a rash appears, it will abate within a couple of days. If in doubt, seek medical attention.