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With the season of gardening, cookouts and playing outdoors upon us, the nasty little critters that like to picnic on human blood and infect their hosts aren't far behind.
"We think we'll be seeing more ticks this year than last year," Kirby Stafford, chief entomologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, said Wednesday. "Next week we'll really start to see them move."
Larval ticks are starting to emerge into nymphs, the stage when ticks are most likely to bite humans and infect them with the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, or the pathogens that cause babesiosis or anaplasmosis. Adult ticks have been active for a few weeks but will be disappearing soon, Stafford said.
"We started off in the spring with an abundance of ticks," he said. "The snow this winter acted like an insulating blanket, moderating the cold temperatures and providing moisture that created very favorable conditions to the overwinter survival of ticks."
The emergence of the nymphs has been delayed a couple of weeks because of the relatively cool spring, he said, but it's not too soon to start employing tick-prevention strategies. He suggested getting into the habit of checking yourself for ticks after coming in from outdoors and using insect repellent with DEET. Wearing clothing impregnated with permethrin, or spraying it on pants, shirts and socks before going outdoors is also a good idea.
"The nymphs are mainly found in the leaf litter," he said. "The highest risk activities are playing outdoors, yard work and gardening."
Children, he noted, have the highest rates of Lyme disease, followed by middle-aged and older adults.
In the No Child Left Inside program sponsored by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, families are encouraged to do regular tick checks after each of the outdoor activities and to wear light-colored long pants tucked into socks, said Diane Joy, supervisor of education for DEEP. This year, 1,200 parents and their children are participating in the weekend events that began May 10 and will conclude June 22 with a camp-out at the University of Connecticut campus in Storrs.
"You just have to be really diligent about checking," Joy said. "If you get them off within 24 hours, you shouldn't have any problem."
Joy said her husband, Richard, a retired parks maintainer for DEEP, has had several bouts with Lyme disease, so she understands how important it is to prevent bites as much as possible. But, she added, the benefits of enjoying outdoor activities outweigh the risks of Lyme disease, and anyone can be exposed in a city park or yard as easily as in a state park or forest.
"Getting outside is healthy for you, getting fresh air, hiking," she said.
Statewide, reported cases of Lyme disease have hovered around 3,000 annually for the past few years, following a peak of 4,156 reported cases in 2009, according to the state Department of Public Health. Stafford, however, noted that according to the Centers for Disease Control, reported cases represent only about 10 percent of all diagnosed cases.
"So there are about 30,000 cases annually in Connecticut," he said.
To prevent infection, quickly locate and remove ticks using this method:
• Using tweezers, grasp the tick close to the mouth parts near the skin surface.
• With gentle, steady pressure, pull the tick upward away from the skin until it releases.
• Once the tick is removed, wash the area of the bite with an antiseptic or rubbing alcohol.
• Over the next three to 32 days, watch the area of the bite for early signs of Lyme disease infection that can include: an expanding red rash and flu-like symptoms such as muscle aches, fatigue and fever. Some people may also experience rashes on parts of the body away from the bite, facial or Bell's palsy, meningitis, pain and swelling in large joints, heart palpitations and dizziness.
• If you get any of these symptoms, contact your doctor immediately.
• Smothering ticks with petroleum jelly is not effective. Never use a hot match, gasoline or other chemical to remove a tick.
Source: state Department of Public Health
Lyme disease by county
Reported cases in Connecticut, 2013
• Fairfield: 442
• Hartford: 289
• Litchfield: 187
• Middlesex: 183
• New Haven: 391
• New London: 402
• Tolland: 256
• Windham: 184
• Location unknown: 584
• Total: 2,918
Source: state Department of Public Health