Ticks: Tiny, dangerous, resilient and plentiful in Chatham

Posted 4/12/19

So small even their name sounds miniscule, ticks may at first seem a minor nuisance, but the little arachnids are well-known to often carry trouble disproportionate to their size.

Jennifer Platt …

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Ticks: Tiny, dangerous, resilient and plentiful in Chatham

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Posted

So small even their name sounds miniscule, ticks may at first seem a minor nuisance, but the little arachnids are well-known to often carry trouble disproportionate to their size.

Jennifer Platt can attest. In 2011, a bite from a tick changed her life.

And that’s not hyperbole.

With that bite, the tick shared with the Pittsboro resident a bacterial illness called Ehrlichiosis, which produces flu-like symptoms within a few days a being bitten.

“It was awful,” Platt said of the experience. The tick bite and subsequent illness cost her “three months of functionality.”

Ironically, Platt was bitten while she was working on completing a doctorate in public health.

While Platt’s illness was diagnosed and treated, eight years later, she says she’s OK , though she still has some short-term memory issues as a result of her bout with the tick-borne illness.

But she also calls her experience “bittersweet.” That’s because the bite changed her life in a more positive way, too, prompting her to not only learn as much about ticks as she could — and it’s an ever-widening expanse of information — but also to share her information to better educate other folks about just how dangerous ticks can be and avoid the problems she encountered.

She eventually completed her doctorate and one of the first tasks she undertook professionally was working with the Chatham County Public Health Department on a local survey of tick activity.

She hasn’t slowed down since.

She is, in fact, a warrior against ticks and three years ago, founded a company called Tick Warriors, promoting all-natural sprays to protect people, pets and property from ticks and other pests.

“I just geek out on ticks,” she said.

The breadth of her knowledge on the topic is expansive.

For example, one tick, Platt said, can lay from three to 7,000 eggs.

And that’s just one tiny piece of information about the wide-ranging topic of ticks.

For a self-proclaimed geek, Platt is in the right place.

Anecdotally, Chatham County has long been known, she said, as “tick central,” or the tick “hot spot” of North Carolina, but data also backs up the anecdotes.

As noted in the Chatham County Public Health Department’s recently-completed Community Assessment Report, Chatham has one of the highest rates of tick-borne illnesses in North Carolina.

And not only is that number high, incidences of tick-borne illnesses, including confirmed, probable and suspected cases, have “risen steadily in Chatham since 2006,” according to the health department’s report.

Thirty-nine cases of tick-borne illness were reported in Chatham County in 2006. In 2015, the number had risen sharply, totaling 87 cases.

"We’re a hot spot for Alpha-gal as well,” Platt said, referring to the relatively-recently identified allergy to red meat, a condition which originates with the bite of a Lone Star tick, the most common and aggressive tick in North Carolina.

Five kinds of ticks found in North Carolina bite humans. The most common is the Lone Star tick but there are also Dog ticks, Blacklegged (deer) ticks, Brown Dog ticks, and Gulf Coast ticks that are found in eastern and central N.C.

The local Community Assessment found that 60 percent of respondents to the local survey had found a tick on their body in the past year and 8.3 percent of adults reported being diagnosed with a tick-borne illness while living in Chatham County, the most common illnesses being Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Ehrlichiosis, and Lyme disease.

In her studies and travels related to ticks, Platt has also discovered that people “are ravenous for education” when it comes to the tiny menaces.

Platt speaks to a variety of groups, giving what she calls “tick talks,” of varying lengths.

Some of her prepared talks are longer, discussing the minutia of tick information. Others are very concise, offering a few key preventative measures.

For instance, Platt said the most effective means of ridding clothing of potential ticks after a walk in the woods is to remove the suspect clothing and run it through a clothes dryer for 15 minutes, because the heat kills the ticks. Conversely, she said, washing the clothes first won’t kill them because ticks don’t drown. The Lone Star tick, she said, can survive for up to 80 days in water.

And not only that, the Lone Star — which is most active here in the warmer months between March and October — is a predator. “It’s a hunter,” she said. “And it thrives in our humidity.”

Ticks can also have a life span of up to two years.

“They’re extremely resilient,” said Platt. “It’s insane. It’s a good thing we can’t see them or we might never go outside.”

While warm weather provides an ideal environment for many ticks, cold weather — particularly the kind of cold weather in central North Carolina — isn’t enough to do much damage. It takes multiple days of temperatures lower than 10 degrees to “make a difference,” Platt said.

So just about any time of year can mean exposure to a tick in these parts.

“On a warm day in the middle of December, please don’t forget you can still pick up a tick,” Platt said.

And ticks don’t waste time. Within seconds of exposure, a tick can travel quickly on a body, often to “soft, fleshy areas” such as groins and armpits. “A tick can start at your ankle and end up at your neck in a matter of seconds,” she said.

Platt encourages people to check for ticks twice daily.

Though Chatham County, indeed, has a documented problem with ticks, moving elsewhere to avoid them isn’t the answer. The Centers for Disease Control has noted increases in tick-borne illnesses nationwide, reporting 22,527 tick-borne illnesses in 2004 and that figure more than doubling to 48,610 cases in 2016. Among the reasons noted by the CDC for this increase are reforestation of suburban areas and the geographic spread of deer, which unwittingly carry ticks.

“We’ve got deer and we’ve got ticks,” said Platt. And residential development, she said, is “bringing people right up to nature.”

So what can you do?

Platt’s “number one” advice to prevent exposure to a tick, and thus avoid the myriad health problems associated with them, is to apply tick repellent.

The Chatham County Health Department also advises avoiding places where ticks live, removing ticks promptly and properly. When outdoors, wear light-colored clothing for easier sighting of ticks, and conduct a tick check after time outside.

For all the information about ticks, there is still, Platt said, “so much we don’t know.”

And ticks aren’t slowing down.

Chatham County’s Community Assessment report notes the discovery, only in 2017, of a new tick, the Asian Longhorned Tick which, as of last October, had been found in nine eastern states, including North Carolina.

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