With the first official day of summer coming Wednesday, countless numbers of outdoor enthusiasts across the Golden Isles will hit public parks, nature preserves and hiking trails.
All those nature lovers will undoubtedly be welcomed by park rangers and tour guides, but some of Georgia’s ickiest residents are waiting, too: ticks.
These tiny blood suckers are common in Georgia and can carry diseases, including Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. But there are precautions people can take to prevent being bitten, a local physician said.
Dr. Pauline Jacinto of Southeast Georgia Health System’s Infectious Disease Care Center said most of the defense measures are common sense, but a refresher doesn’t hurt.
“The best way to avoid Lyme (disease) is, of course, to prevent tick bites,” she said. “The majority of cases are usually reported this time of year, which is summer until fall. You have to be cautious when walking in the woods or grassy areas.”
Jacinto advises wearing long pants and sleeves, insect repellent and checking skin after walks through wooded areas. Because ticks can also be carried indoors by pets, checking them helps as well.
“And in order to reduce tick population, maintain a clean backyard, mow the lawn, trim tall grasses and bushes,” she also said.
And if a tick does bite, don’t panic.
“Make sure you pull the tick off completely from your skin,” she said. “A tick typically has to be attached in your skin for at least 36 hours to infect the host.”
When removing a tick, use tweezers to get as close to the skin as possible and pull upward on the tick. Don’t jerk or twist the tick, because that can cause the mouthparts to stay lodged in skin. After removal, apply disinfectant immediately and wash hands with hot, soapy water.
Lyme disease, which can be caused by bacteria transmitted by the tick, is not exceedingly common in Coastal Georgia, but people should monitor tick bites for about 30 days. If a Lyme disease infection occurs, it will likely include symptoms of fever, chills and joint pain. A red rash, often shaped like a bull’s eye, can appear and enlarge over a period of time. Later signs may include sever headache, facial droop and nerve pain.
If a person suspects a tick-borne illness, physicians may use a physical exam, medical history and sometimes a blood test to confirm an infection. Most cases of Lyme disease clear up after a few weeks of antibiotics, Jacinto said. Sometimes, the disease can linger and present chronic symptoms, but that’s uncommon, Jacinto added.
“Chronic Lyme disease occurs in a small percentage of the population where the symptoms last for more than six months despite treatment,” she said. “Although the exact cause is unknown, it is believed to be due to residual damage to tissue and the immune system cased by the infection.”
Lyme disease was first reported in Georgia in 1987, according to the University of Georgia. Most cases occur in the northern half of the state, but are possible in Coastal Georgia. Three tick species are common in Georgia. The Lone Star tick, with its unusually long mouthparts, is generally found in brushy bottomlands frequented by deer. People can recognize the Lone Star tick by its trademark white dot, which can be found on the backs of females and is diffuse on males.
The American dog tick has shorter mouthparts and both males and females have diffuse white markings on their backs. Their preferred hosts — not surprisingly — are dogs, but will also bite humans.
The third species, the black-legged tick, is smaller than the other two common species, and has no white markings. These ticks are commonly found on deer, dogs, birds and sometimes humans. While the other two species of ticks will feed during all stages of their life cycle, black-legged ticks feed only as adults.
Ticks survive best in high grass and brushy areas, according to the University of Georgia. Game trails, with their high deer populations, are frequently home to large numbers to ticks.
It’s key to note that ticks need high levels of moisture to survive. High humidity, thick vegetation and high wild animal populations make the perfect environment for ticks to survive.
Homeowners can reduce the risk of ticks by keeping the lawn mowed, applying pesticides and fencing the yard to keep other dogs and animals out.