Spring has only just arrived, but tick season is well under way. Physicians are seeing new cases of tick-borne illness several weeks earlier than usual, likely because a mild winter in much of the country made life easier for ticks and their offspring. That means it's time for gardeners, hikers, pet owners and others who spend time outdoors to take steps to protect themselves -- and to watch for symptoms of tick-borne illness if they do come in contact with the tiny bloodsuckers.
"We've already started getting positives for tick-borne disease such as Lyme disease, anaplasmosis and babesiosis," says Bobbi Pritt, M.D., a Mayo Clinic microbiologist and director of the Clinical Parasitology and Virology Laboratories. That is a month or two earlier than normal for Minnesota and other states with unusually warm weather in recent months are likely seeing the same.
Dr. Pritt says there are several things people can do to protect themselves from ticks.
"The first thing is just tick avoidance -- staying out of areas where ticks are going to be present: tall grasses, shrubs, leaf litter," Dr. Pritt says. "Also using insect repellant, such as DEET. You can also buy clothing that has been impregnated with pyrethroids, which is another type of insect repellant, and there are certain types of insect repellants for pets."
Other countermeasures Dr. Pritt suggests:
*Keep grass short in yards and avoid ungroomed areas.
*Wear long clothing to prevent ticks from getting to your skin.
*Check yourself, your children and your pets after spending time outdoors.
*To reduce risk on hikes, stay on trails. If you leave the path, wear long pants tucked into your socks.
*If you find ticks, remove them right away. Use force and pinch the tick near its mouth parts, pulling the tick out slowly in a continuous motion. Don't twist it, which may leave mouth parts embedded in the skin.
If you've been exposed to ticks, be alert for fever, headache and muscle pains, and if you experience them, see a physician and mention you've been exposed to ticks, Dr. Pritt says. A hallmark of Lyme disease is a bull's-eye-patterned rash. If you do not recall getting a tick bite but have been working outdoors or visited other tick habitats and develop such symptoms, it is important to tell your doctor, she says.
One tick-related illness Dr. Pritt plans to keep special watch for this year is ehrlichiosis. She and other researchers in Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Centers for Disease Control announced last year they had found a new tick-borne bacterium causing ehrlichiosis in humans.
"It's not very prevalent -- it's not as common as Lyme, babesiosis and anaplasmosis, but now that we're aware of it we're detecting more cases, so we're going to keep a close eye on it and see if the numbers go up over the years, now that we know what to look for," Dr. Pritt says. Like many other tick-borne illnesses, symptoms of ehrlichiosis include headache, fever and muscle pains.