Maine tick myths, revealed

A female deer tick is shown under a microscope.
Victoria Arocho | AP
A female deer tick is shown under a microscope.
Posted Nov. 07, 2012, at 1:38 p.m.

Hunters, beware. You aren’t the only ones in the woods searching for a set of antlers.

Winter ticks have just hatched, and they’re looking for warm hosts, preferably deer or moose. But because the two of you are looking for the same thing, your odds of running into each other are pretty high, and ticks aren’t known to be picky.

You might just stumble through a nest and look down to see 50 newly-hatched ticks crawling up your camouflage. They’ll latch onto your skin and suck your blood, which is thoroughly disturbing, but no research shows them transmitting any diseases.

Unfortunately, deer ticks are also out and about, and one in four carries Lyme disease, according to Jim Dill, pest management specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

“This was a pretty high deer tick year in comparison to other years,” Dill said. “The dog tick population this year was fairly high, too, especially south of Bangor.”

And when it comes to ticks, what you don’t know can indeed hurt you, so let’s lay to rest a few common misconceptions about these tiny pests.

Myth: Ticks die in the winter.

Deer ticks live for an average of two years, and they certainly don’t migrate. Therefore, it’s safe to assume they survive the winter. When the weather is freezing, they simply become inactive and often burrow into leaf litter.

“What we’re finding about this time of year is that the deer tick is active as long as it’s 38 degrees and above,” said Dill. “Because of that, you can find deer ticks out any time of year. You can find them out in the middle of winter.”

“Last winter was so mild that children were playing outside without the snow and coming in with ticks,” said Bob Maurais, co-owner of Mainely Ticks, a tick management business based in southern Maine. “It’s not a function of season, it’s a function of the temperature and ground condition.”

Myth: There are two types of ticks in Maine, dog ticks and deer ticks.

Winter ticks are actually a different species than dog or deer ticks. Also called the “moose tick,” the winter tick is usually found on moose and deer, and occasionally on horses, cows, dogs and humans, mainly in central and northern Maine.

“We are still finding deer ticks, as we have all along, but we’re having a lot of hunters call us with winter ticks,” Dill said. “They cause a lot of problems with moose in the winter.”

Hundreds of winter ticks can attach to a moose when it walks through their nest, which is often located in underbrush.

“What happens then is [the ticks] weaken the animal because they’re drawing so much blood out of the animal,” Dill said. “The moose is more susceptible to disease and predation, even cold temperatures.”

Maine is also home to tick species such as the woodchuck tick, squirrel tick, rabbit tick, brown dog tick and Lone Star tick, according to the Maine Medical Center Research Institute.

Myth: If you find a tick latched onto you, you should set a hot match against its back end.

When a person finds a tick on them, the natural reaction is to get it off right away.

Not so fast.

“If you want to remove it, you have to be careful,” Dill said. “Don’t follow the old wives’ tale and set a hot match on its butt or try to get it off with nail polish. If you think about it, if you do that, what [the tick] is probably going to do is regurgitate more stuff into the wound.”

And you certainly don’t want a tick to be vomiting anything into your bloodstream.

If it’s a deer tick, the contents could include a corkscrew-shaped bacteria that causes Lyme disease, an illness that frequently starts with a rash and flu-like symptoms, and if untreated, may progress to cause arthritis and neurological problems.

To remove a tick, use fine-pointed tweezers or a tick removal device and grasp the tick as close to your skin as possible. Then apply slow, steady pressure, pulling outward to remove it, Dill said.

Usually, it takes a deer tick a minimum of 24 hours to transmit Lyme disease, but even if you remove the tick before it’s engorged, it’s always a good idea contact a doctor to talk about whether you should take antibiotics.

Myth: If you don’t have a rash, you don’t have Lyme disease.

In humans, Lyme disease typically causes a red rash to expand from the site of the tick bite. But this rash occurs in only 70-80 percent of Lyme disease patients, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Myth: Deer ticks and Lyme disease are only a problem in Southern Maine.

The first documented case of Maine-acquired Lyme disease was diagnosed in 1986. Since 2003, when 175 cases were confirmed, the numbers of reported cases have increased each year through 2011 (1,002 cases), with the exception of 2010, according to a 2012 report by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

While the vast majority of Lyme disease cases reported in the 1990s occurred among residents of south coastal Maine, in recent years, the disease incidence has increased steadily in the northern parts of the state. Since 2008, no Maine county has escaped at least one new case of Lyme disease each year.

Myth: Only people can get Lyme disease.

Lyme disease affects many animals, including horses, cats and especially dogs.

“The state no longer requires that small animal veterinary clinics report cases of the disease in dogs because we were getting so flooded with reports,” said Elizabeth McEvoy, acting state veterinarian.

“We’re seeing more and more Lyme disease cases every day now,” said Jessica Jones, a veterinarian at Brewer Veterinary Clinic. “We’re actually diagnosing it every day in dogs.”

At the Brewer clinic, the test for Lyme disease in dogs takes about eight minutes and three drops of blood, said Jones. And if the dog tests positive for the disease, they put the animal on a 30-day regimen of antibiotics.

“A lot of the dogs that we diagnose with Lyme disease, we wouldn’t even know they have it,” said Jones. “And the dogs that show symptoms will often have swollen joints, lameness or lethargy. In a small percentage of dogs, it causes fatal kidney failure.”

Maine veterinary clinics offer a Lyme disease vaccination for dogs that has become increasingly popular, taking care of the problem before it starts.

Myth: The only disease ticks transmit is Lyme disease.

Two other tick-transmitted diseases, human granulocytic ehrlichiosis (HGE) and babesiosis, have been found in Maine during the last few years, according to the Maine Medical Center Research Institute. For more information, visit mmcri.org.

Myth: You can check your body for ticks with your eyes.

Two summers ago, a woman from southern Maine called Maurais at Mainely Ticks after finding a nymph (young) tick in the belly button of her 10-month-old son. At first, she thought it was dirt, but when she tried to move it, it wouldn’t come out. With a magnifying glass, she looked again and saw that the “dirt” had legs.

“Had she not checked and had her son been infected, who knows what problems that youngster would have,” Maurais said.

The tick has three life stages: larva, nymph, and adult. Because the nymphs are about the size of a poppy seed, they often go unnoticed until fully engorged, and are therefore responsible for nearly all of human Lyme disease cases, according to the American Lyme Disease Foundation.

“It surprises people when we talk about the nymph tick, which is the size of the head of a pin,” Maurais said. “It could be nestled behind your ear and you’d never know it. When you ask someone to do a tick check, they’re subconsciously looking for a big tick.”

Maurais suggests that people who spend time outdoors — for example, hunters — should conduct a daily tick check with their fingertips, feeling for small bumps along their skin. A thorough check should take about 30-45 seconds, he said.

And you don’t need to stumble through a winter tick nest while moose hunting to be a likely host. If your outdoor cat sleeps on your pillow at night or you’ve been raking the leaves off your lawn, you might want to go ahead and check.

For a fact sheet on ticks by pest management specailist Jim Dill and insect diagnostician Clay Kirby, visit umaine.edu/ipm/ipddl/publications/5047e/.

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