BRATTLEBORO — Now is what should be the most worrisome time of the year for folks who spend any time out of doors.
That's because in a couple of weeks, nymph and adult black legged ticks will be out and looking for a meal, most likely large mammals such as deer, moose and, yes, humans.
"We are approaching the season when you need to be vigilant," said Alan Graham, Vermont state entomologist.
From July through the end of September, black legged ticks, or deer ticks, have been feeding on small rodents or they are in the larval stage, said Graham. The larvae will soon become nymphs and the nymphs will soon become adults, both of whom need larger hosts than rodents.
"You can get Lyme disease from both larvae and adults," he said.
The life changes of ticks is dependent on your climate zone, so those closer to the border with Massachusetts might see an abundance of black legged ticks sooner than those in other parts of the state.
"The adult ticks will climb up a stem of grass or other vegetation and latch on to something passing by," said Graham.
Hunters and those who plan activities in the woods need be especially vigilant, he added.
"Places that you are more likely to pick up ticks are at the edges of fields where there is vegetation, near the woods and along stone walls, where rodents like to hide," said Graham.
Despite the drought this year, he said, black legged ticks find ways to survive, like staying close to the ground where there is moisture.
"Adults are going to start showing up in October and will be present until the middle or end of June. If they haven't found a host by then, they will die," said Graham.
Fortunately, ticks are cold blooded, and any time the temperature drops below 50 degrees, they become inactive. This means, with the winter and colder temperatures on the way, being in the woods is safer. But, if, as has happened the past few years, the region has winter days with temperatures above 50 degrees, they will become active again.
"The highest transmission rate is in July, because the nymphs are almost microscopic," said Graham.
Though he is not a doctor, Graham mentioned that those who are bitten and infected might not exhibit a bull's eye rash, so it's important to take precautions. And ticks don't transmit just Lyme; they also have been shown to carry in Vermont anaplasmosis and babesiosis. According to the Vermont Department of Health, Vermont is on pace for its highest number of reported cases of anaplasmosis. As of September, 133 cases of anaplasmosis have been reported, only six fewer than were reported for all of 2015.
Although anaplasmosis cases peak in the spring and summer, a second surge in illnesses occurs in the autumn. That is when adult ticks are hungry and looking for another blood meal before winter arrives.
"Anaplasmosis is a serious illness, and we're seeing more of it in Vermont," said Bradley Tompkins, infectious disease epidemiologist. According to Tompkins, over one-third of the anaplasmosis cases reported to the Health Department are sick enough to be hospitalized, compared to 3 percent for Lyme disease. Symptoms can include fever, headache, chills and muscle aches. Anaplasmosis can be successfully treated with antibiotics, especially if treatment is given early.
"Whether you're doing yard work, admiring the changing leaves, or heading out into the woods to hunt, it's important to take precautions to prevent tick bites," Tompkins said.
The Department of Health recommends a number of steps to protect yourself and your family. Those include applying an EPA-registered insect repellent on your skin and treating your clothes with permethrin. When possible, wear light-colored long sleeved shirts and long pants, and tuck your pants into your socks to keep ticks from your skin.
Do daily tick checks on yourself, your children and pets. There are several products that can be used on dogs and cats that kill ticks when they bite, but ticks that have not latched on can be dangerous to humans because they often end up in bedding, furniture or clothes.
Remove ticks right away. Showering within two hours of coming indoors has also been proven effective in washing ticks off the skin before they attach. Put clothing into the dryer on hot heat for 10 minutes to kill remaining ticks but do not wash them first. Adding water can actually make the ticks stronger.
If you were bitten by a tick, watch for signs of disease during the weeks following the bite. Early signs of anaplasmosis include fever, headache, chills and muscle aches, and usually occur within one to two weeks of a tick bite. Call your health care provider if you experience these symptoms.
Graham told the Reformer that the state has been conducting random surveys of areas in Vermont, including in Windham County and Bennington County, to determine how many ticks are in a given area and what diseases they might be transmitting.
"In 2015 we tested 659 ticks," he said. "More than 58 percent tested positive for Lyme, 10.5 percent tested positive for anaplasmosis and 0.8 percent tested positive for babesiosis."
All the ticks that tested positive for babesiosis were found in Bennington County. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many people who are infected with babesiosis feel fine and do not have any symptoms, though some people develop flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chills, sweats, headache, body aches, loss of appetite, nausea, or fatigue. Babesiosis can also cause hemolytic anemia.
Graham added that 7.9 percent of the ticks that were tested had both Lyme and anaplasmosis; some of those ticks were found in Rockingham and Shaftsbury.
To learn more about ticks and tick-borne diseases, visit www.cdc.gov or http://healthvermont.gov/prevent/zoonotic/tickborne/ticks.aspx.
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 160.