Avoid blood suckers

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal

If it seems there are more – and more aggressive – blood-sucking parasites around than there used to be, rest assured it isn’t just because 2011 is an election year.
Some folks who work and play outside have said this year seems to be a particularly bad one for ticks. Others say this year isn’t so different from last year or the one before that. The dryness that has prevailed for most of May and June supports that theory.
“Ticks do need moisture, so hot and dry is bad on tick populations,” said Dr. Jerome Goddard, associate extension professor of medical and veterinary entomology at Mississippi State University. “These hot and dry months should actually reduce the problem. One person’s yard or a particular park or trail may be worse than usual, but another’s may be less so.”
Goddard says the remarkable change in tick numbers is not year to year but generational: “What I can say for sure is that tick problems are worse now than they were 50 years ago.”
Many rural families still had small flocks of chickens when today’s grandparents were children, and ticks and other bugs were part of their diet, but the biggest reason for today’s tick tide is the proliferation of deer. A half-century ago, the sighting of a deer in most of Mississippi was a cause for amazement; today even the most conservative estimates of their numbers say there are far more than a million in the state.
“The more deer you have, the more ticks you’re going to have,” Goddard said.
Buddy Lowrey, a timber sales forester with Holly Springs National Forest, has also noted the growth of tick populations over his career.
“I’ve got nearly 40 years in the woods,” he said. “Ticks are a lot worse now. I grew up in north Louisiana, and we didn’t have any deer back then, and there just weren’t a lot of ticks.”
Deer are the major host for the lone star tick, a common and aggressive species, and for the American dog tick, which can carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever. (Lyme disease may be more notorious, but no cases of it have been proven to have originated outside the Northeast and the upper Midwest, Goddard said.)
One key to not being a frequent snack for ticks is making one’s yard an unfriendly environment for the eight-legged creatures.
“Keeping the grass cut low helps. Sunlight and wind dry out the grass, and ticks can’t live without moisture,” Goddard said.
Another precaution is staying out of high grass: Ticks find moisture deep in such stands, and higher up they can latch onto passing host animals. If duty calls to wild areas, repellents can help, along with physical barriers.
“We use insect repellent spray, but some days I get in a hurry and forget to do it,” Lowrey said. “Some of our guys take duct tape and tape the bottom of their pants to their boots. Anything you can do to keep ticks out of your clothes is a help.”
Lowrey said if he forgets his precautions for a day, he’s likely to pay for the oversight, depending on which segment of the forest in which he’s working.
“Some localities are worse than others,” he said. “In Lafayette County in the national forest is usually worse than in Benton or Yalobusha. Out east of Oxford [where the deer herd is especially numerous], the ticks are especially bad. I came home one day and pulled probably 25 ticks off me.”
Goddard said it’s important to check oneself for ticks – and perhaps to have one’s spouse help check – after being outside.
“There’s a grace period between when the tick attaches and when it can transmit a disease,” he said. “Any of them, if you get them off within about 24 hours, you’re probably safe.” Goddard added that people should mark any tick bites on their calendars so they can tell their doctor when it happened if a problem develops.
DEET-based repellents can be applied to the skin while permethrin-based insecticides are labeled only for use on clothing, but Goddard said both are effective for ticks, mosquitoes and several other vectors. It’s important, however, to use any remedy only as the label advises, despite what one’s uncle’s neighbor’s brother-in-law advises.
“Just because somebody says you can do something doesn’t mean it’s safe or legal,” he said. “I’ve heard of people wearing tick collars on their legs, but it’s not labeled for humans. People get nutty over these things.”
Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or errol.castens@journalinc.com.