Ticks a potential danger to humans, animals

PUNXSUTAWNEY — Almost everyone has enjoyed the abnormally warm weather throughout the winter season. But along with such weather comes an onslaught of deer ticks, or black-legged ticks, throughout the area.

Unseasonably warm weather has extended the season of activity for the ticks, said Dr. Tom Simmons, IUP professor of Biology and Public Environmental Health.

"With this unseasonably warm winter, it may not result in a population explosion of ticks this coming year," he said. "The tick populations were high last year, and they will remain high this year."

Simmons said with the mild weather, people are outside more, walking or hiking on "Rails to Trails" and are exposed more to the ticks’ natural habitat.

"What most people call deer ticks are actually black- legged ticks," Simmons said, adding that the adult ticks are dormant during the winter but become active once the weather turns warmer.

"It has been a really warm winter, so people are picking up the adult ticks, which are really active," he said. "With the weather being so warm, people are seeing the adult ticks be more active earlier than ever before."

He said during a typical winter, the adult ticks are out there, but no one sees them because they're inactive, waiting for a warm day.

"Normally, you might get a couple of warm days during the winter, which will cause ticks to become active," Simmons said, adding that people don't usually come in contact with them because there aren't that many around.

Simmons said a class that he taught last fall went out to a park and collected over 100 adult black-legged ticks in two hours.

"The black-legged tick population seems to be on the rise," he said. "The good news is that right now, everyone is encountering just the adult ticks, which are easy to see."

Simmons said the adult ticks have an brown-orange color and are large enough to see with the naked eye.

"You find them usually on your body and on your pets, too," Simmons said, adding that if you discover one or several, you should remove them immediately.

He said Lyme disease is not spread by the adult ticks, but by the tiny ticks that are in the nymph stage.

Lyme disease (LD) is an infection caused by Borrelia burgdorferi, a type of bacterium called a spirochete that is carried by black-legged ticks.
Simmons said an infected tick can transmit the spirochete to the humans and animals it bites.

"Untreated, the bacterium travels through the bloodstream, establishes itself in various body tissues and can cause a number of symptoms, some of which are severe," Simmons said.

"Ninety percent of Lyme disease cases are due to the nymph stage, which is about the size of a sesame seed," he said. "These tiny ticks will be active in May, June and July, which is the time when people need to be careful.

"It's not that the adult ticks can't transmit Lyme disease, but the nymphs are hard to locate and will get on you over a couple of days, which is when the risk goes (up)," Simmons said.

"The adults, you can feel them when they're on you, and (they’re) easy to spot when attached to your pet, and you can remove them," he said.
Simmons said to avoid contact with ticks, stay on the trail and try not to brush up against grass and low lying bushes along the trails.

"You should also tuck your pants inside your socks and spray insect repellent on your clothing and skin," Simmons said, adding that there will be a lot of people out in the woods next month when trout season begins.

"When I go out fishing or (to do) stream work for biology, (I will) be wearing waders and walking through the woods with them on, not just in the stream," he said. "Ticks will have a harder time grabbing onto waders than clothing, and people will be able to see them more easily.

"If you don't wear boots or waders, make sure you inspect for ticks on you every time you come out of a wooded area, no matter what you are wearing, just to be safe," Simmons said.

For more information on ticks and how to spot them check out the Center for Disease Control (CDC) Web site at: www.CDC.gov.