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Think You're Seeing More Ticks? The Cape's Entomologist Says It's Not Because It's Tick Season; It's "People Season"

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Stuart Meek
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Deer tick

The days are getting longer and warmer, and you may be spending more time outside—on walks in the woods, or in your yard. Ticks are also out, and they're host to a variety of diseases that can make humans very, very sick.

CAI's Kathryn Eident talked with Cape Cod Cooperative Extension Entomologist Larry Dapsis about this year's "tick forecast."

Eident First, I wanted to ask if the tick population looks any different this year; does the fact that we had a drought last year and a fairly mild winter impact the number of ticks that we might encounter outside as we head into summer?

Dapsis I mean, that's the widespread perception out there, Kathryn, that the tick populations have exploded. And, I tell people it's really not about the tick populations, it's people activity. It's more people season. They're getting outside more. And, they're not expecting to run into the ticks because they're under the impression that the winter must have killed them. And winters do nothing to the tick populations because they make antifreeze. So. they're clever little beasts.

Eident Well, they are. And that means that people should be aware of ticks nearly any time they're outside.

Dapsis It's a year-round problem. Tick season goes from January 1st to December 31st. So, any time the temperatures are above freezing and there's no snow cover, you have an opportunity for a tick encounter.

Eident So, we've been talking over the last few years about some newer ticks to the region, if you will. There's been more talk of things like the Lone Star tick. These are ticks that bring with them the potential for diseases other than Lyme disease, which we've talked about for a long time.

Dapsis Correct. So, the Lonestar, we first found them on the Cape 10 years ago, and they've been showing up in other parts of the Cape, including in Falmouth. We found them well-established long the Shining Sea Bike trail. They don't cause or transmit the pathogens that cause Lyme, but Erlichiosis, Tularemia, and STARI, a type of rash disease. But, with Lone Star tick, the real game changer is that the bite of a Lone Star tick can trigger an allergy to red meat consumption that can be as mild as hives, but range all the way to anaphylactic shock. And I know this red meat allergy has occurred on the Cape. And it's not just beef, but it's other red meats like lamb and pork, but even high fat dairy products like ice cream. And who can imagine living on Cape Cod without being able to have ice cream?

Eident No, thank you. [laughs]

Dapsis Exactly. But, the protection tactics for Lone Star tick are the same that we would apply to dog ticks as well as deer ticks, hands down. My number one tool in the box is to use the permethrin-treated clothing and footwear,

Eident And, people should be getting in the habit of checking themselves and their kids in their pads when they come in from the outside, right?

Dapsis Absolutely. As soon as you come in from an outdoor activity, I tell people, throw your clothes in the dryer for 20 minutes. That's all it takes to kill the ticks and yeah, do a thorough tick check. They can get in some tight places. So, you have to be mindful of, you know, between your toes, up around your ear, your pelvic area.

Right now, the stage of the tick that is primarily out there are the adult stage deer ticks that have been with us since last September. But, we're seeing a transition now to the nymph stage ticks, which are the size of a poppy seed. And they're going to be with us until August. And that tiny stage of the tick is responsible for 85 percent of our tick-borne illnesses. So, we have to be mindful year-round, but really be on our game during the warmer weather.

Eident I've seen some signs around town for companies that offer tick sprays. In your opinion as an entomologist, are they effective?

Dapsis I consider a perimeter yard spray as part of a one-two punch to further reduce exposure risk. So, the treated clothing and footwear, fold that in and with a perimeter yard spray.

But, then I tell people, buyer beware because there are companies that are offering products that are touted as green and all natural. They're based on, you know, largely botanical oils like rosemary or cedar. And research at the University of Rhode Island has demonstrated that those products are completely ineffective against ticks. There are commercial products that are like permethrin. Bifenthrin is the to go-to for many of the companies. And that is very, very effective and environmentally compatible because those active ingredients, when they hit leaf litter, or soil particles, they're immobilized. So, they're not going to leach down through the soil. They're not going to wash off-site. So, the chemistry of products like by bifenthrin are very good for our particular application.

Eident And so, what happens if you do find a tick on yourself, or your pet, or one of your kids; where can you send it to find out if it does indeed carry illnesses that you might need to talk to your doctor about?

Dapsis Saving a tick? That's evidence because you can have it analyzed and see what pathogens you were potentially exposed to, because we're finding in a number of cases the ticks of packing more than one of these bugs. We're up to five different diseases associated with deer ticks.

So, there's a number of labs that are available. The one I have the most experience with is out in Amherst. So, you would go to Tick Report.com and it's an online submission process. Once they get the tick, you're going to get your tick report in three business days or less. This tick test is 99.9% accurate. And, so it would tell the doctor, "OK, these are the type of things probably I should be looking for in a clinical presentation of my patient." So, it's a good service to avail yourself of.

Eident And, that's Larry Dapsis, the entomologist for the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension. Larry, thanks a lot. We appreciate it.

Dapsis All right. Take care.

This transcript was lightly edited for grammar and clarity.

Learn more about ticks and tick-borne diseases: https://www.cdc.gov/ticks/tickbornediseases/tickID.html