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To Your Health: Tick bites pack a powerful punch

Powassan. Babesiosis. Anaplasmosis. The names sound like some horrible alien species planning to attack Earth. In fact, each is a horrible illness that attacks human beings through the bite of the deer tick. Guess what? Maine is brimming with deer ticks and thus many Mainers are falling prey to painful illness with long-lasting effects. In 2022, Maine Center for Disease Control reported 2,636 Lyme disease cases — a new annual record — 824 anaplasmosis cases, 192 babesiosis cases, plus 26 additional tick-based illnesses.

There are three tick species that are permanent inhabitants in the state: Blacklegged tick or Deer tick, American Dog tick, and the Woodchuck tick, according to the Cooperative Extension Tick Lab at the University of Maine. Twelve other species of ticks can be found in the state but are not considered permanent.

Deer ticks carry Lyme disease. Lyme disease is currently the most reported vector-borne (transmitted by an anthropod) illness in the United States. Infected people suffer headaches, fever, chills, joint and muscle pain, fatigue. Less than 50% of those infected develop a characteristic rash which looks like a bullseye. The common treatment for Lyme disease is oral antibiotics such as doxycycline; if left untreated, Lyme disease may lead to severe arthritis, facial palsies, meningitis, and carditis.

Anaplasmosis is another nasty sickness caused by bacteria carried by the deer tick. The number of reported cases in the country has been increasing over the past twenty years particularly in Maine, where cases nearly doubled each year from 2012 through 2017. Symptoms of anaplasmosis may include fever and chills, severe headache, body aches, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. The illness is also treated with doxycycline or other oral antibiotics.

Babesiosis also comes from deer ticks but is caused by a parasite, not bacteria, that infects red blood cells, potentially causing anemia. Symptoms of babesiosis are similar to anaplasmosis but may also include dark urine or jaundice, both indications of anemia. The number of cases in Maine is low, relative to Lyme disease, but has increased slowly, reaching a high of 192 reported cases last year.

Powassan encephalitis is a potentially fatal neuroinvasive disease caused by a virus. Typically carried by the woodchuck and squirrel ticks, it has recently been found in deer ticks. The period between the tick bite and onset of symptoms may be from one week to one month. Those symptoms may include fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, confusion, loss of coordination, slurred speech, seizures. People with severe cases of Powassan often need to be hospitalized to receive support for breathing or reducing swelling in the brain. Currently there are no treatments for the illness. While rare in Maine, it does occur. A person in Sagadahoc County died of Powassan in late May; a Waldo county resident died in 2022 as did a Cumberland county resident in 2019.

No one in their right mind wants to get any of these diseases. Yet many of us want to go hiking, hunting or just hang out in the backyard with the dog. To do so safely during tick season, which now occurs from May until November in Maine, you must take preventive steps. Remember, deer ticks like cool, high humidity habitat so they will be found in shaded, moist places covered with leaf litter and debris. They also require animal hosts (such as white-tailed deer or white-footed mice) on which to feed. Ticks tend to be most abundant in the woods, along trails, and in the grassy, brushy areas adjacent to the woods.

Check for tick hosts

  1. Although the deer tick may feed on a wide variety of hosts, two of its favored hosts are the white-tailed deer and the white-footed mouse.

  2. Take note that if these two animals are prevalent on your property, ticks may be abundant as well.

Dress appropriately

  1. Wear light-colored clothing to make ticks easier to detect.

  2. Wear long pants tucked into socks or boots and tuck your shirt into your pants to keep ticks on the outside of your clothes.

  3. Do not wear open-toed shoes or sandals when in potential tick habitat.

  4. Use tick repellents

  5. Use products that contain permethrin to treat clothing and gear. Do not apply permethrin directly to your skin.

  6. The use of repellents that contain 20-30% DEET on exposed skin and clothing can effectively repel ticks for several hours.

  7. Other tick repellents recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) include picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus, and IR3535.

How to remove a tick

  1. Use tweezers or a tick removal spoon.

  2. Do not use petroleum jelly, a hot match, nail polish, or other folk remedies to remove ticks. Those methods are not effective and may increase the risk of disease transmission.

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