Lone star tick nymphs and adults are active now. American dog tick adults will be looking for hosts soon, too. Personal protection, frequent self-inspection, and prompt tick removal are keys to reducing tick bites and potential health consequences.
Ticks can be encountered throughout the Kentucky outdoors. They are most common in overgrown vegetation along forest edges and trails commonly transited by deer and other wildlife. Personal protection and awareness are keys to preventing the irritation of tick bites and the risk of infection by a tick-borne disease. The incidence of infected ticks is very low in the state and ticks must feed for hours before passing a pathogen, so importance of early discovery and removal cannot be overemphasized.
Types of Ticks
Lone Star Tick
Lone star ticks are frequently encountered along woodland trails and overgrown areas in much of Kentucky. Lone star ticks aggressively attack humans, a wide range of other mammals, and ground-nesting birds. Intense reactions to saliva injected while these ticks feed can produce painful, itchy areas that can become infected if contaminated from frequent scratching.
Lone star ticks can transmit erlichiosis, a disease that can affect humans, dogs, and cats. It can exhibit a variety of symptom combinations: fever, headache, chills, muscle pain, and in some cases, a rash. These appear 1 to 2 weeks after the bite from an infected tick. Kentucky is among the states with the highest reported incidences of erlichiosis: 3.3 to 26 cases per 1,000,000 people. The chance of an individual tick carrying the pathogen is very low and infected ticks must be attached and feed for at least 24 hours before the bacterium is transmitted.
American Dog Tick
The American dog tick will be active soon across the state, as well. This tick can be a vector of Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF). Infections in humans usually begin as a sudden onset of fever and headache that appear from 2 to 14 days after feeding by an infected tick. Other symptoms can include nausea, muscle pain, lack of appetite, and a rash. Kentucky is among the states with the lowest reported incidence of RMSF (0.2 to 1.5 cases per 1,000,000 people). As with erlichiosis, an infected tick must feed for about 24 hours before the pathogen passes to the host.
The blacklegged tick, the vector of Lyme disease, is still relatively new to Kentucky. It has been reported primarily in the region of the Daniel Boone National Forest and in counties along the Ohio River in northern Kentucky. Some cases of Lyme disease have been diagnosed in Kentucky. As with the other diseases, the tick must be attached and feed for at least 24 hours to transfer the pathogen.
Preventing Tick Bites
- Wear light-colored clothing so ticks can be seen easily.
- Tuck pants into socks and shirt into pants to keep ticks from reaching your skin. A band of duct tape (sticky side out) around lower legs will help to trap ticks that have latched on as you pass by.
- Avoid or minimize time in tick habitats.
- Use personal protection – repellents (DEET or picaridin) or permethrin-based (Permanone) clothing sprays
- Inspect your clothing and body regularly and remove ticks, especially at the end of the day. Ticks wander on the body for some time before settling to feed. Often, they can be found before they become attached.
- Take a warm soapy shower after potential tick exposure.
- Wash clothing in hot water and detergent; store clothing in a sealed bag until it can be washed.
- Check dogs frequently and remove ticks as they are found. There are insecticides/repellents that can be used to protect companion animals from ticks.
The longer the tick has been in place, the harder it is to remove. Barbed mouthparts and cement secreted anchors it firmly to the skin.
- Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin surface as possible. Then, pull upward with steady, even pressure.
- Twisting or “unscrewing” the tick may cause the mouthparts to break off and remain in the skin. Use of irritants, such a gasoline or a hot match tip, may cause the tick to salivate excessively, increasing the chances for skin irritation and potential disease transmission.
- Prevent infection after removing the tick, by thoroughly disinfecting the bite site and washing your hands with soap and water.
Dealing with Tick Bites
Tick-borne diseases occur in Kentucky; fortunately, the incidence is very low. The risk of infection depends on the species of tick and length of attachment. Ticks can be removed carefully and preserved in rubbing alcohol for identification. It is normal for a tick bite to be red and irritating for several days. See your physician if the red area expands, or symptoms typical of the disease appear.
By Lee Townsend, Extension Entomologist