By Barbara Leach, Horticulture Techniciation, VCE-Roanoke
Here at the Master Gardener Help Desk one of my jobs is to examine and diagnose as many insects as I can to reduce the number of insects going to our laboratory at Virginia Tech. Hence, as the front line clinic I see the trends in insects around the Roanoke area. Traditionally, we have seen more Lone Star ticks than any other. They are most common east of the Blue Ridge. Dog ticks are the second most common, and there are two dog ticks in Virginia. The American Dog tick, like the Lone Star can transmit diseases to humans. The less common Brown Dog tick is not known to carry diseases in Virginia. The Deer Tick, also called Black Legged Tick is the one of most concern because it can carry Lyme disease.
Ticks have been really bad this year and I have seen an increased number of deer ticks, so I want to caution folks, without raising unreasonable fears. Your first defense is always to protect yourself with repellants and stay out of tick-prone areas. While it is true that most tick encounters occur in “marginal” vegetation areas, you may very well pick them up in other places. By marginal I mean they are less likely to be in the middle of the manicured lawn or a trail in deep woods with little low vegetation, but are most common in the margins; that interface between groomed areas and low vegetation. They “quest” by perching on low vegetation waving their legs in hopes of snagging a passing animal or human. Because of this questing habit, at a minimum you should spray your shoes and bottoms of your pant-legs when going outside, even in your own back yard. If possible, tuck your pants into your socks and wear light colored clothing, this forces the tick to the outside of pants and makes them easier to see. This gives you some protection while allowing you to not have to take a virtual bath in DEET day after day. Also, do daily tick checks in front of a mirror to find any that might have attached. If you are going into areas more favorable for ticks, you must do a more thorough spraying to get adequate protection. There are some permethrin sprays labeled for use on your clothing, not your skin.
A common misconception is that all small ticks are deer ticks. Well, deer ticks are smaller than others, but all ticks have a small nymph stage and we call the small ticks of any species a “seed” tick. If you are trying to identify a tick it is best to take it to the Extension office for identification under a microscope. When pulling ticks, be patient. Pull slowly and tire them out until they release their mouth parts, or you may pull the head off, which can still transmit disease. Be sure to clean the bite area with an antiseptic, like alcohol or hydrogen peroxide.
It is unlikely that Rocky Mountain spotted fever can be transmitted if the tick is attached for less than 20 hours. When you come in, change clothing, examine yourself and/or shower. Be ever vigilant. Lyme disease takes longer to be transmitted. Infections are thought to occur after 24-36 hours of feeding. Ehrlichiosis is spread by the Lone Star tick, and like Lyme is transmitted after 24 hours of feeding. Other tick-borne diseases exist. You can only protect yourself adequately from diseases if you are using repellants pro-actively and you remain aware of where you have been and how long a tick may have fed on you. If you have been bitten and suspect that the tick has fed longer than 24 hours you should call your doctor. Some may want to start a pro-active treatment. Keep the tick that has fed on you, suspended in rubbing alcohol, and get help. If you develop any flu-like symptoms after a bite, call your doctor. Redness, bulls-eye rings, rashes, and other visible symptoms don’t always exhibit.
There is lots more to know about ticks so you may enjoy these articles and pictures: https://pubs.ext.vt.edu/content/dam/pubs_ext_vt_edu/2906/2906-1396/ENTO-250.pdf
A new tick-borne disease has hit the news. It is Powassan virus. So far, that disease is still rare and has not been reported in our part of Virginia.