published Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

Warm winter, spring blamed for rise in tick population

Megan Lane pets Darlin while taking a break from hiking the Sunset Rock trail Tuesday on Lookout Mountain. She and hiking partner Devin Robinson said they had found several ticks on themselves and Darlin on a different trail.
Megan Lane pets Darlin while taking a break from hiking the Sunset Rock trail Tuesday on Lookout Mountain. She and hiking partner Devin Robinson said they had found several ticks on themselves and Darlin on a different trail.
Photo by Angela Lewis.

SYMPTOMS OF TICK-BORNE ILNESS

Many tick-borne diseases can have similar signs and symptoms. Although easily treated with antibiotics, these diseases can be difficult for physicians to diagnose. However, early recognition and treatment of the infection decreases the risk of serious complications. If you have been bitten by a tick and develop the symptoms below within a few weeks, see a health care provider:

Fever/chills: Patients can experience fever at varying degrees and time of onset.

Aches and pains: Symptoms include headache, fatigue, and muscle aches; with Lyme disease, you may also experience joint pain.

Rash: Distinctive rashes can be caused by Lyme disease, Southern tick-associated rash illness, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ehrlichiosis and tularemia.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Call it the invasion of the creepy, crawly -- and potentially lethal -- monsters.

Every day, the McDermott household battles the invasion, as Brooklyn McDermott carefully checks her 4-year-old daughter, 6-year-old twin sons and two dogs for ticks. Most days she finds one, two, three, even half a dozen.

"It's nuts -- I'm scared to go outside," said McDermott, who lives in Cleveland, Tenn. "We've lived here five years and we've never had ticks like this. I don't even want to take the kids outside anymore."

The little brown insects aren't just a nuisance, they also carry potentially deadly diseases, including Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Tennessee has had a 533 percent increase in Rocky Mountain spotted fever this year compared with last year, the Tennessee Department of Health recently reported. So far this year, the state department confirmed 38 cases, with an additional 17 potential cases. By this time last year, the state had confirmed six cases.

Hamilton County has had three cases confirmed, with an additional case in the southeast region of surrounding counties. Last year, Hamilton County had 21 cases all year, with most typically reported in May, June and July.

Lyme disease cases also have increased statewide, rising from two by this time last year to six this year, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.

THE INVASION

Rocky Mountain spotted fever

• Rocky Mountain spotted fever, the most common tick-borne disease in Tennessee, is caused by the bacterium Rickettsia rickettsii.

• In the United States, ticks carrying the disease include the American dog tick, Rocky Mountain wood tick and brown dog tick.

• Typical symptoms include: fever, headache, abdominal pain, vomiting, and muscle pain. A rash may also develop, but is often absent in the first few days and, in some patients, never develops.

• Rocky Mountain spotted fever can be a severe or even fatal illness if not treated in the first few days of symptoms.

• Doxycycline is the first line treatment for adults and children of all ages, and is most effective if started before the fifth day of symptoms.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

From Ringgold to Cleveland to Chattanooga, dozens of area residents report an invasion of ticks this spring.

"I've lived here all my life and I've never seen them this bad," said 65-year-old Jane Scroggins, of Ringgold.

The problem is so bad at the McDermott home that Brooklyn McDermott told her husband she is ready to move. Their two dogs have tick collars, take pills and are sprayed regularly, but nothing seems to help.

The increase is likely because of a warm winter with no deep freezes and an unusually warm spring, bringing the ticks out earlier than normal, experts say.

Tom Stebbins, University of Tennessee Extension agent for Hamilton County, confirmed that the region has had an increase in tick numbers this spring.

"I don't know that you can put a number to it, but there are a lot of ticks and chiggers," Stebbins said. "The warm winter likely had something to do with it."

DISEASE CARRIERS

HOW TO REMOVE A TICK

1. Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin's surface as possible.

2. Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don't twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouth-parts to break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, remove the mouth-parts with tweezers. If you are unable to remove the mouth easily with clean tweezers, leave it alone and let the skin heal.

3. After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub or soap and water.

4. Avoid folklore remedies such as "painting" the tick with nail polish or petroleum jelly, or using heat to make the tick detach from the skin. Your goal is to remove the tick as quickly as possible, not waiting for it to detach.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

In the United States, ticks transmit at least 12 diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the Chattanooga region, ticks carry only about four of those diseases. Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which is transmitted by the American dog tick and the brown dog tick, is by far the most common. Ehrlichiosis is less well-known and is transmitted by the lone star tick.

Tennessee is one of five states, including North Carolina, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri, that have more than 60 percent of all Rocky Mountain spotted fever cases in the United States, according to the CDC. Tennessee had 259 cases in 2011 and 307 in 2010.

Just across the state line, Georgia sees far fewer cases, reporting only 103 cases in 2011.

Logan Boss, spokesman for the 10-county Northwest Georgia Public Health district that includes Catoosa, Dade and Walker counties, said the district had 13 cases of Rocky Mountain spotted fever last year, but has not confirmed any cases this year.

Statewide, Georgia has had fewer than five cases of the fever so far this year, Boss said.

SYMPTOMS

AVOIDING TICK BITES

• Wear light-colored clothing to help you spot ticks that may catch a ride on you.

• Tuck pants into socks to keep ticks off your legs.

• Apply EPA-approved repellents to discourage tick attachment. Repellents containing permethrin can be sprayed on shoes and clothing and will last for several days. Repellents containing DEET can be applied to skin, but must be reapplied every few hours. Follow label instructions for repellents.

• Search your entire body for ticks upon return from a potentially tick-infested area. Remove any tick you find on your body; grasp with tweezers and pull straight back if the tick is attached.

• Check children for ticks, especially in their hair, when returning from potentially tick-infested areas.

• Ticks may also be carried into your home on clothing and pets, so examine both carefully.

• Reduce tick habitats around your home by removing leaf litter and brush.

Source: Tennessee Department of Health

Dr. Betsy Close, a Chattanooga family and sports medicine doctor, recently saw a patient showing symptoms for what may be her first case of Rocky Mountain spotted fever this year. The patient had a tick bite two weeks ago, was sweating and had a low-grade temperature.

"We started treatment. You don't want to wait for a confirmation test," Close said.

Symptoms for various tick-borne illnesses can be similar to flu. Left untreated, Rocky Mountain spotted fever can be fatal in about 30 percent of cases, but the fever responds well to antibiotics. In 2008, fatalities were less than half a percent of all diagnosed cases, according to the CDC.

If anyone gets bitten by a tick, experts recommend marking the date on the calendar and watching for symptoms for the next several weeks.

Dr. Mark Anderson, an infectious disease specialist in Chattanooga, said he sees numerous cases of Rocky Mountain spotted fever and ehrlichiosis every year. With the increase in ticks, he expects to see more cases this year.

"The bottom line is, if you have a headache and fever this time of year, it is much less likely to be a virus," Anderson said. "You should get it checked out."

PREVENTION

Despite the increase in ticks, experts are quick to add that few ticks in the area actually carry the disease and even fewer will transmit those diseases.

University of Tennessee surveys have shown that only about 3 to 5 percent of adult American dog ticks carry the disease, Stebbins said. Although no survey has been done this year, Stebbins said there is no reason to believe the percentages have changed.

And those adult disease carriers must be attached to a person for 48 to 72 hours before they can transmit the disease, Anderson said.

"That is one reason we don't see more cases. There are thousands of bites every year," Anderson said.

Preventing tick bites still is the best way to keep from getting sick.

Mow long grass, clean out leaves and debris and keep foliage down as much as possible, Stebbins said. Spraying your yard is not very effective and doesn't prevent ticks for long, he noted.

Instead, use insect repellents containing permethrin or DEET any time you go outside and wear long-sleeved clothing if possible, he said.

Check your body frequently for ticks and take a shower after being outside in places that may have ticks.

"Be smart about it. Check your body regularly," Stebbins said.

about Mariann Martin...

Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...

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