Tick season is upon us: Here’s how you can lower your risk of tick bites and tick-borne illnesses in Chatham County

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While ticks are active throughout the entire year, they are most active from April to September. Hence, tick season in Chatham County is upon us.

As a reminder: Ticks are parasites that feed on warm- and cold-blooded hosts through bites. Ticks can feed on mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, and illnesses from those bites can be consequential if not treated early.

It’s likely that Chatham County residents are well aware of ticks and what they can do. In 2020, Chatham County had among the highest rates of diagnoses of ehrlichiosis and Spotted Fever Group Rickettsiosis, two of the most common tick-borne illnesses (TBI), in North Carolina. Chatham has particularly large areas of tick habitat, primarily brushy areas with high grass and vegetation.

Many Chatham County residents will soon begin, or are already, spending more time outside with weather warming up. The county is graced with many wonderful parks where residents can hike, camp, and enjoy nature. Unfortunately, it also means ticks are out and about too.

“Depending upon the weather, ticks can be active year-round in North Carolina,” said Anne Lowry, Chatham County Environmental Health Director. “However, ticks are typically more active during the warmer months.”

Pittsboro resident Dr. Marcia Herman-Giddens is a member of the Chatham County Board of Health and a co-founder of the Tick-Borne Infections Council of North Carolina (TIC-NC). She has decades of experience in public health, primarily in child health and maltreatment, but also in the field of tick-borne illnesses. She warns that most tick-borne illnesses can make people “sick and miserable,” and some like Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever can turn fatal.

“Ticks affect everyone’s ability to enjoy the outdoors,” said Dr. Herman-Giddens. “The saddest thing to me is that children can’t just go outside and play in the woods anymore. Even yards may harbor ticks. It’s not safe. Around here, tick season is all year long.”

Dr. Herman-Giddens points to the number of deer in the county as one of the primary reasons for Chatham’s high rates of TBIs. She says the two most frequent ticks found in Chatham, the lone star tick and black-legged tick, need large mammals to feed on for reproduction. As such, ticks have made their home in the county.

“Studies have found that if there were far fewer deer,” she said, “the tick populations may dramatically decline.”

The most well-known TBI, arguably, is Lyme disease, which Dr. Herman-Giddens says can “make people chronically-ill, even bed-ridden, especially without early treatment.” Ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and anaplasmosis, which are not related to Lyme disease, do not cause chronic problems but can cause “organ failure and coma along with occasional fatalities if not promptly treated.”

Ticks can also cause two other conditions: tick paralysis and red-meat allergy, also known as “alpha gal.” The latter can lead to mild-to-life-threatening anaphylactic shock and, Dr. Herman-Giddens says, the ongoing allergy may “significantly alter people’s lives, depending on how sensitive they are.”

However, she emphasizes, that doesn’t mean Chatham County residents should just hole up inside and never spend time outside. There are things Chatham residents and all county visitors can do to keep themselves safe and protected, including treating their clothing with permethrin spray, using insect repellants, and knowing how to properly remove a tick. While spending time outdoors, people should walk only on wide, clear paths and know which areas are safest from ticks.

A key step is making sure you check all over your body after you spend time outside, even if you’ve dressed for the occasion. Dr. Herman-Giddens recommends showering after being outdoors.

“Sometimes people never see them,” Dr. Herman-Giddens said. “They feed and drop off and people didn’t even know they had a tick bite.”

The Chatham County Environmental Health Division offers residents a tick kit free of charge from its office in downtown Pittsboro designed for folks who are spending time outside and may run into ticks.

“The tick kits offer information about various tick born illnesses, what to do if someone finds an attached tick, and how to remove the tick, and includes tweezers with magnifying glass for more precision when removing ticks,” Lowry said. “The faster a tick is removed, the less likely it is to transmit illness. It is extremely important to check your body for ticks when returning from outdoors.”

If you are bitten by a tick, remove it immediately with sharp-pointed tweezers. Dr. Herman-Giddens recommends keeping the tick just in case you develop symptoms and need to show a medical professional. The best way to do this is to tape it down firmly to a piece of paper or note card and write down the date of the bite and where the bite occurred on the body. Those bitten should monitor themselves for symptoms for 30 days.

“Any suspicion of tick-borne disease should be treated immediately,” Dr. Herman-Giddens said. “It usually takes 10 days to two weeks for a blood test to turn positive if the person did get infected as the tests are based on the body developing antibodies.”

TIC-NC’s website has information about various kinds of ticks, preventing illness, and different TBIs, and can be found at www.tic-nc.org. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has helpful information on ticks and related topics at www.cdc.gov/ticks. The Chatham County Environmental Health Division also maintains a webpage with tick information, which can be found at www.chathamcountync.gov/environmentalhealth.

TICK-AVOIDANCE TIPS

Before you go out:

• Consider where you’re going. Will the area you’re visiting be grassy, brushy, or wooded?

• Use EPA-registered insect repellents. Follow product instructions.

• If you are going to an area with a high likelihood for ticks, wear long pants, socks, and boots to protect your skin.

While you are out:

• Avoid wooded and brushy areas with high grass and piles of leaves.

• Walk in the center of trails.

• Keep any children or pets near you and away from areas with high likelihood of tick presence.

When you come home:

• Check your clothing for ticks. Tumble drying your clothes for 10 minutes on high heat can kill ticks on dry clothing.

• Examine your gear and pets. Ticks can cling onto those things and then attach to a person later.

• Check your entire body for ticks. That includes under the arms, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, behind your knees, in and around your hair, between your legs, and around your waist.

• Do all of the same for any children you brought with you.

What to do if you’re bitten:

• Be aware that a person can contract a tick-borne infection without being aware of a tick bite.

• Remove the tick immediately with sharp-pointed tweezers.

• Keep the tick in case you develop symptoms. Do so by placing the tick on a note card or piece of paper and tape it down firmly. Write down the date of the bite and where it occurred on your body.

• Monitor your symptoms for 30 days. If you begin to experience symptoms, seek medical treatment immediately, taking the tick with you.

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