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Ticked Off

Don't sit on logs or kneel in leaves if you want to avoid the pests, says study

TUESDAY, Sept. 18, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- If you don't want to pick up Lyme disease-causing hitchhikers while you're taking that fall foliage hike, don't stop to rest on fallen logs or sit on the forest floor, advises a study from the U.S. Agricultural Research Service.

"Eighty-seven percent of the logs we checked had at least one tick on them," said John Carroll, an entomologist with the Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Md. And the same goes for stone walls, as well. These areas are good hiding places for mice, which harbor the ticks.

The ARS scientists began their study because they wanted to find out what activities increased a person's risk of picking up ticks in the woods. They found that standing or walking through the woods was a relatively low risk, but stopping to sit on a fallen log, or kneeling down in the leaves, as a child might, greatly increased the chances of picking up a tick.

The biggest problem with these ticks is that they're so small -- about the size of a typewritten period -- they're hard to spot, and you almost never feel them bite. Generally, they're active when the temperature is above 40°F.

Carroll and his colleagues suited up for their tick-finding expedition in light-colored coveralls and wore either boots or sneakers. For one trip through the woods they wore boots, tucked their pant legs into their socks and taped up where the pants met the socks as an added measure of security. But on another trip, they just wore sneakers and skipped the tape.

Carroll said that any ticks picked up walking were often brushed off in the leaf litter as they continued their walk. But boots seemed to offer a little bit more protection than sneakers did. And, he said, fuzzier materials like that in socks or suede sneakers might give the ticks a little bit more to hold on to.

The study was published in a recent issue of the Journal of Medical Entomology.

To protect yourself, Carroll recommended wearing light-colored clothing so that you can see the ticks crawling on you. He also suggested tucking your pants into your socks, and if you really want to protect yourself, wrap tape around that area and around your wrists where your sleeves end.

He added that insect repellants may also provide some protection. Dr. John Nowakowski, an assistant professor of medicine at New York Medical College in Valhalla, N.Y., said that it is safe to use sprays that contain up to 30 percent DEET, but only for short periods of time. He added these products are not for everyday use.

Around the home, Nowakowski says it's important to keep your lawn short and to not store wood piles around the home because these attract the rodents who carry the ticks.

But the most important step anyone can take is to check themselves when they come in from outdoors.

"As soon as you come in from gardening or hiking, look for attached ticks," said Nowakowski. "Get ticks off before they have been feeding for a day," because it takes about 24 to 48 hours for a tick to transmit Lyme disease. More than 170,000 people have been diagnosed with Lyme since it was first identified in 1980, according to the Lyme Disease Foundation.

If you do find a tick on you, Carroll said you should grasp the tick as near to the skin as possible with a pair of tweezers. Pull it steadily out and try not to squeeze the content of the tick back into you. After you've removed the tick, wash the area thoroughly with an antiseptic wash, and then be on the lookout for symptoms of tick-borne disease. Some symptoms would include a red, blotchy rash that may look like a bulls-eye, a fever, joint aches and flu-like symptoms.

Nowakowski said that anyone who pulls an engorged tick off them should consult their physician about possibly taking a single dose of an antibiotic to prevent Lyme disease. And, he said that people who spend a lot of time outdoors for their jobs might want to get a Lyme vaccine.

What To Do

For more information on Lyme disease, go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And, for information on Lyme and other tick-borne diseases, check out the American Lyme Disease Foundation.

Know what the tick looks like? Here are some pictures.

SOURCES: Interviews with John Carroll, Ph.D., entomologist, U.S. Agricultural Research Service, Beltsville, Md.; John Nowakowski, M.D., assistant professor of medicine, New York Medical College, division of infectious diseases, Westchester Medical Center, Valhalla, N.Y.
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