Look out for the lone star tick and the mysterious virus it spreads, scientist says

·4 min read

Outdoor enthusiasts – whether they’re adventurous deep woods hikers or budding gardeners – should be on the lookout for the lone star tick and the deadly tick-borne illness it can carry.

That’s according to University of Kentucky entomologist Jonathan Larson, who said this is the time of year people should be taking precautions before enjoying the great outdoors, particularly against aggressive biters like the lone star tick.

We asked Larson what people should know about tick season this year, the lone star tick and the Heartland virus, which researchers at Emory University and the University of Georgia found in one out of every 2,000 ticks they collected as part of a recent study.

“It seems like it’s becoming more and more common,” Larson said, adding that the lone star variety is especially tenacious.

“These ones, they will follow you … It’s like the walking dead,” Larson said.

The lone star tick and the Heartland virus it spreads, what to know

The lone star tick gets its name from the female of the species, which has a single white dot on its back. In recent years, they’ve become more common, Larson said.

“They’ve always been around, but it seems like they are interacting with more and more people more (frequently),” he said, adding it seems to be “taking over as the No. 1 tick.”

The lone star tick is notable because of the emerging Heartland virus, which can lead to hospitalization and death in humans.

The virus, first identified in Missouri in 2009, has infected more than 50 individuals in nearly a dozen states, with cases requiring hospitalization, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms include a high fever, fatigue, diarrhea, muscle pain and low white blood cell counts and platelets. It can take as long as two weeks for symptoms to emerge after a bite.

There are no vaccines or medications to prevent or treat the Heartland virus, according to the CDC.

Image of a Lone Star tick at each stage of its development, sourced from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Image of a Lone Star tick at each stage of its development, sourced from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Where does the lone star tick live?

The lone star tick, Amblyomma americanum, is found throughout the eastern, southeastern and south-central states, according to the CDC. The distribution, range and abundance of the lone star tick have increased over the past 20 to 30 years, and lone star ticks have been recorded in large numbers as far north as Maine and as far west as central Texas and Oklahoma.

According to the CDC, the Heartland virus has been confirmed in 11 states across the southeastern, southern and midwest, including Kentucky.

Does the lone star tick carry Lyme disease?

It does not, according to the CDC. Patients and even health care providers have been stumped by the circular rash that sometimes develops after a bite from the pest.

The exact cause of the rash still has not been identified, per the CDC, but Lyme disease has been ruled out because the rash is not produced by Borrelia burgdorferi, the particular bacterium that causes Lyme disease.

This condition has instead been termed southern tick-associated rash illness or STARI. It can sometimes be accompanied with fatigue, headache, fever and muscle pains.

Symptoms have resolved following antibiotic treatment, but it’s unclear whether medication helps speed recovery. The exact cause of STARI remains unknown.

Differences between Lyme Disease and STARI, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Differences between Lyme Disease and STARI, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

An entomologist’s tips for avoiding tick bites

One surefire way is to apply the pesticide Permethrin to your clothes (but not your skin) before heading out for a hike or weekend camping trip.

You can also buy clothing pre-treated with Permethrin from camping supply stores, Larson pointed out. It’s hard to beat the satisfaction you get when you shake out your clothes after a camping trip and 20 dead ticks fall out.

For a less extreme option, personal repellents like Deet or a natural alternative like oil of lemon eucalyptus are effective, Larson said.

There’s lots of advice about what you should do if you find a tick already embedded in your skin. The best approach is still the simplest: get a pair of fine tweezers and pull the tick out.

He’s heard people swear by matchsticks or pouring alcohol over the bite site, but Larson advises against those approaches because irritating the tick can cause it to vomit pathogens into the bite. So-called tick twister tools also aren’t worth the expense, Larson said.

Ticks can also live at the edges of your backyard and essentially thrive anywhere there’s thick undergrowth. That’s why you should also consider taking these steps even if you’re just working in your vegetable garden for a few hours on the weekend. Plan ahead and check yourself after outdoor activities, he said.

“Ticks are not just a rural issue,” Larson said. “They are in cities and towns as well.”