Ticks could get big head start this spring

ATTLEBORO, Mass. — Ticks are normally thought of as a menace mostly in the warmer months when children, pets and adults spend more time outdoors and bring home the hitchhiking insects.

But thanks to recent rain and snowfall together with a warmer February, they may be getting a head start this year.

“Warm weather tends to bring them out,” said Lauren Gordon, director of the Audubon Society’s Oak Knoll Wildlife Sanctuary, who added that she got a reminder of tick season recently when she had to remove one from her son. “We’re reminding hikers to take precautions and do tick checks to make sure they’re not taking ticks with them.”

Two species of ticks are common in Massachusetts: The deer tick, which carries Lyme disease, and the dog tick. While the deer tick is typically smaller than the dog tick, it’s difficult for most people to differentiate between the two.

Symptoms of early Lyme disease include a flu-like illness with fever, chills, sweats, muscle aches, fatigue, nausea and joint pain. Some patients have a rash or Bell’s palsy or facial drooping. Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics but if left untreated long enough can become chronic.

Although ticks don’t discriminate between animals and humans, most people typically encounter ticks on their pets.

Jim McGrath, practice manager at Dewitt Animal Hospital in Plainville, said ticks are already beginning to show up on patients.

“We’re expecting a bad year for ticks,” he said. “For prevention, we recommend using a flea and tick preventative treatment all year round.”

Like the weather, naturalists say it’s hard to forecast the tick population precisely. But there is at least one clue — in this case, mice.

“Last year was a big year for acorns,” said Tom Lautenheiser, central-western regional scientist for the Massachusetts Audubon Society. “That means it was a good year for mice, particularly white-footed mice, which are hosts for ticks.”

Ticks initially hatch each spring as larvae and evolve into nymphs, each time requiring a blood meal before eventually emerging as the tiny, blood-sucking insects that infest warm-blooded birds and mammals. By the time they’re through, the average tick may have been around for as long as two years.

Dry weather tends to suppress the number of ticks, Lautenheiser said. But a shot of moisture — along with warmer weather such as the area experienced in February — can re-energize the tick world.

Lautenheiser, who spends a good deal of time in the woods, said simple precautions can protect hikers and others who love the outdoors against ticks and should not deter people from experiencing nature.

“Ticks aren’t a reason to stop people from doing the things they love to do,” he said.

Anyone going outdoors should be aware of potential exposure to ticks and take proper precautions when going into the woods or fields, said Dr. Brian Kelly, vice president for medical affairs and medical director at Sturdy Memorial Hospital in Attleboro.

In areas where the risk is greatest, it’s a good idea to wear long pants and shirts with long sleeves, he said. Individuals also need to self-inspect to see if a tick has latched onto them or a companion during an outdoor jaunt.

Exposure to a tick does not necessarily mean a person is at risk to contract Lyme disease. Ticks are usually unable to transmit Lyme disease if they are removed within 36 hours, Kelly said. But a tick that is engorged with blood normally has been around longer than that.

Anyone who finds an engorged tick on their skin can guard against the potential for Lyme by obtaining a single dose of doxycycline from their physician.

A small red circle on the skin that grows wider day by day is a sign of possible Lyme disease transmission, Kelly said. But a tiny red mark is simply a normal reaction to a tick bite, he added.

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