‘Eight-legged blood-sucking ninjas.’ How to protect against ticks in KY this summer.

·6 min read

Although Kentuckians enjoyed a mild and extended spring, summer weather is here in earnest, bringing with it a resurgence of outdoor activities and another kind of summer-lover: ticks.

According to John Abrams, a naturalist for the Berea College Forestry Outreach Center in Madison County, Ky., over the last few years there has been a steady increase seen in the Kentucky tick population.

Abrams said the culprit is the mild winters the Bluegrass has enjoyed recently; he mentioned that his first tick bite of the year was on Jan. 31. “Ticks generally spend winters tucked away under the leaf litter,” he said. “They aren’t hibernating though, anytime the temperatures get up to around 40 degrees F they will be out looking for food, mating, and laying eggs.”

This increase in numbers comes with several health concerns, but there are things Kentuckians can do to protect themselves and their pets from these parasites.

Sucky medical concerns

Dr. Jonathan Larson is an extension entomologist at the University of Kentucky entomology department, and his area of research focuses on pests and arthropods. These “eight-legged blood-sucking ninjas,” as Larson put it, can pack a large punch, sometimes carrying dangerous diseases like Alpha-gal syndrome and Lyme disease.

He said that there has been a greater number of Lyme disease cases seen in Kentucky this year, to be expected with the population increase in recent years. “It’s not astronomical, but we are talking a couple dozen-fold increase in cases,” Larson said. “We’re still in the low numbers compared to the northeastern states, but it’s worrying that we’re seeing more and more people come down with it.”

However, Larson said that not all ticks can carry Lyme disease, and the condition can be transmitted only after a tick has been attached to its host for an extended period of time. Black-legged ticks and black-legged deer ticks are the only varieties able to spread the disease after being attached for about a day and a half, although ticks can remain attached and feeding for up to 10 days.

Another medical concern is Alpha-gal syndrome, a condition spread by the white star tick that can cause an allergy to red meat in hosts. According to Larson, these ticks sometimes carry a sugar molecule called Alpha-gal, which they can transmit into their host’s bloodstream.

“ [Alpha-gal is] in your bloodstream; your body reacts to it,” he said. “And then, it’s something that you can ingest with red meat objects; and so, when it’s in your stomach, the next time your body thinks this is an invader again, it sends out the same immune response. And then you have an allergic reaction to your hamburger.”

Well, that sucks.

Tips on preventing ticks, courtesy of the UK College of Agriculture.
Tips on preventing ticks, courtesy of the UK College of Agriculture.

Tick bite prevention

Bearing these bite-transmitted diseases in mind, how can Kentuckians protect themselves and their pets from ticks? Larson said the key is to be vigilant and cognizant that ticks are out there, regardless of how long or short of a time is spent outdoors.

In light of this, wearing repellents with ingredients like eucalyptus or lemon oils, DEET or IR3535 is imperative. For long excursions deep into the woods, Larson recommended using products with around 100% DEET, as opposed to 25-40% for shorter periods of time spent outside.

For those planning on hitting the hiking trails this summer, Abrams cautions against going off the trail and encourages hikers to stay in the middle of the path to avoid encountering unwelcome guests like ticks, snakes and poison ivy.

“Ticks hang out in the leaf litter, or they will do what’s referred to as ‘questing’ where a tick will crawl to the tip of some type of vegetation like a blade of grass or the limb of a low bush. Once at the tip, they stick their front legs out and wait for some animal to brush up against them so they can grab on,” Abrams said. “If you avoid brushing up against vegetation or walking through leaf litter you avoid most tick encounters.”

Clothing choice is also important. Larson said that some camping stores sell clothes infused with permethrin, an insecticide that kills ticks and mosquitoes. “You shake these [clothes] out when you get done for the day, and you’ll see a couple of dozen dead ticks usually fall off — it’s very satisfying for a lot of hikers,” he said.

He also suggested wearing light-colored pants and long-sleeved shirts to easily spot ticks that might be hitching a ride. “Also, it looks really dorky, but tucking your pants into your socks if you’re going to be in the brush can cut off one of the easiest access points,” Larson said.

Once arriving home from any outdoor excursion, Abrams encourages people to check themselves for ticks as soon as possible, making sure to examine the waistband area, underarms and backs of knees, as these areas of the body are particularly susceptible to bites.

Ticks can also be harmful to pets, but Larson had some precautions for furry friends. “We think people should really invest in those flea and tick medications; that helps with flea problems, of course, but it does help to protect your pet from the ticks that are out there,” he said.

‘Ticks of Kentucky,’ from the UK College of Agriculture.
‘Ticks of Kentucky,’ from the UK College of Agriculture.

Removing ticks

Although there are many ways to remove ticks once bitten, not all of them are effective, and some are even potentially harmful. Larson said that common but incorrect methods include applying essential oils, using fire or pouring alcohol (or in true Kentucky style, bourbon) on the tick. He said these methods could agitate the tick, causing it to vomit into the host and increasing the chance of a pathogen being spread into the bloodstream.

According to Larson, the best way to detach a tick is using tweezers or forceps to pull it out by the head, ensuring the entire tick is removed. “You don’t want to wiggle it out, you don’t want to rip it out,” Larson said. “You just want to pull straight up firmly, and it will come out.”

Tick Tracking

Anna Pasternak is a graduate research assistant in the UK entomology department whose work focuses on ticks and tick-borne disease pathogens within Kentucky. For the last two years, Pasternak has been cataloging the tick species found across the Commonwealth, compiling a map of the varieties seen in different counties in conjunction with the Kentucky Department of Public Health.

“Kentucky is a rural state, so ticks do very well here. I tell people that anywhere outdoors you think a tick may be, it’s possible there is one,” she said.

Pasternak said the map will be available to the public in coming months and will be found on the Kentucky Tickborne Disease map, allowing Kentuckians to better prepare for ticks in their particular region of the Commonwealth.

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