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Protect Yourself Against Ticks This Time of Year

Spring, when many deer hunters are turkey hunting or land prepping, is a prime time to encounter ticks.

By Bruce Ingram

Photos by Bruce Ingram

Every morning when I wake up, the toes on both my left and right feet tingle as they have done since late June/early July of 2012. That’s because on April 10 of that year, I was bitten by numerous black-legged ticks while walking through a pasture in Augusta County. Although I immediately removed as many of the vile creatures as I could find, at least one of them apparently escaped my notice.

By mid-May, I was experiencing fatigue, which I rationalized was occurring because of too many mornings in the turkey woods and the end of the school year (I’m a Botetourt County English teacher). By late June, the toes on my left foot began tingling and soon afterwards the right foot toes followed suit. Fatigue and nerve damage in the extremities are two symptoms of Lyme disease. Fearing that I had contracted Lyme, I scheduled an appointment with my physician, who performed the requisite blood work. A week later, the results confirmed that I had Lyme.

What followed next were 30 days of misery. During that time, I took daily doses of doxycycline, an antibiotic that is often prescribed for tick-borne afflictions and has some miserable side effects. I spent most of the month inside, as people on doxycycline should not be exposed to too much sunlight.

The good news is that the month of doxycycline and a follow-up dose that fall seem to have helped me overcome Lyme. Although I’m reconciled to having permanent nerve damage in my toes, I consider that a minor annoyance to what could have happened if my physician and I had not been aware of what the symptoms of Lyme are and had not quickly diagnosed correctly. Those symptoms include the most noticeable one (a bulls-eye rash) as well as flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, sweats, headaches, nausea and joint pain. Later, individuals may have fatigue, sleep issues, neuropathy, depression, facial palsy and heart-related issues.

Indeed, many people who contract Lyme suffer far worse than I did, although only rarely does this affliction kill. Unfortunately, Lyme is not the only tick-borne illness that Virginians must fear. Besides the black-legged tick (Ixodes scapularis), we also have to contend with the lone star (Amblyomma americanum) and American dog (Dermacentor variabilis) species. Both can cause Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, which can cause serious damage to the heart and liver and even death. Rashes, headaches, and high fevers are among the symptoms.

Black-legged ticks, also known as deer ticks, look like tiny, dark spots on human skin (“spots” that many people fail to notice). The lone star features a white dot on its brown back (females) or white streaks (males). The dark brown American dog tick has light, wavy lines on its back. The latter two species, unfed, are about 3/16 of an inch long. The lone star can also cause alpha-gal allergy, which means someone becomes allergic to eating red meat – obviously terrible for anyone, but especially deer hunters.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirms that Virginia is one of the 14 states that account, together, for 95 percent of Lyme disease cases. Virginia is classified as a “high incidence” state by the CDC, with 744 confirmed cases and 395 suspected cases in 2018. Jason Griffin, president of Insect Shield in Greensboro, North Carolina, is very concerned about these numbers.

“More and more parts of our region are being affected,” Griffin said. “The range of the black-legged tick has increased. Winter die-off of these ticks just doesn’t occur as often, and the ticks are much more likely to be active year-round.”

So how can Virginia outdoorsmen prevent contracting Lyme and other tick-related diseases in the spring when they are turkey hunting and land prepping, in summer when working on the land, and in the fall and winter when hunting?

The first line of defense is to carefully inspect yourself for ticks after coming in from the outdoors. Do a full-body check and remove any ticks. The CDC prevention guidelines also recommend showering within two hours of being outdoors. Ticks can also travel in your clothes, but putting clothes in a dryer on high heat for 20 minutes can kill any ticks.

Griffin believes prevention starts at the ground level.

“A lot of people think ticks leap on to us from trees or from bushes, but mostly where they climb onto us is from the ground level,” he says. “It is part of their ‘questing’ behavior. So, the first line of defense is socks.”

Permethrin is a stable form of an insecticidal compound produced by the chrysanthemum flower that is biodegradable. It’s been an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) registered product since 1977, and can be sprayed on clothes and shoes to help repel and kill ticks. Companies like Insect Shield and others produce clothing like socks and pants with permethrin bound to the fabric fibers. Griffin also recommends that outdoorsmen wear pants and long-sleeved shirts when they are afield. Tall socks are also a wise choice.

Gamehide, based in Burnsville, Minnesota, is a major marketer of camouflaged clothing. The company has an agreement with Insect Shield to use its permethrin-based technology. Dave Larsen, vice-president of sales and marketing for Gamehide, agrees with Jason Griffin about the growing tick problem.

“The tick situation does seem to be growing worse,” Larsen said. “I heard from a customer in this region the other day who said at one time the dog tick was the only species of tick he had ever seen, but now he’s seeing black-legged ticks. Even here in Minnesota, we are seeing ticks well into fall because the warmer weather keeps them active longer. A hunter in Pennsylvania told me about pulling ticks off himself well into December. In Virginia, and in states farther south, the situation is even worse.”

Applying an EPA-approved insect repellent before spending time outdoors is also a good idea.

For sportsmen spending time hunting, fishing, land prepping, berry picking, camping, and other similar pursuits, careful attention to preventing tick bites is essential. Make smart choices about clothing and repellents, in addition to paying attention to inspecting yourself, children, and pets after time outside to minimize your risk.

©Virginia Deer Hunters Association. For attribution information and reprint rights, contact Denny Quaiff, Executive Director, VDHA.

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  • April 2, 2020