Saturday, June 18, 2011

Tick Protected and Trendy

Modeling the latest in tick protection. Stylin', ain't I?
In June, 2008, my furry friend, Rosie, and I set out to do our breeding bird survey at Busch Memorial Conservation Area. It's the same territory I still visit and wrote about in my 2 most recent posts. Lake 22 always delivers. That day, an adult and juvenile Orchard Oriole showed off near their nest. I spotted a Hairy Woodpecker and no less than 4 Pileated Woodpeckers! We had some tough going as we headed east from the small lake toward the creek. The gullies had washed even deeper than the year before and the grass was already above my shoulders. Suddenly Rosie started fighting me for the leash. Usually she was more than eager to head down a trail, but perhaps this terrain was too for a 14-year-old Cairn terrier, so I picked her up. I carried her for a short distance, but the trail was getting deeper and more slippery, so we headed back to the car and on to the next lake.

Once we were in the car I noticed that she had several tick on her head and neck, some already attached. I knew we'd have a long session brushing, combing, and tweezing ticks from her thick fur when I got home. I had always been a bit casual about ticks. I was annoyed and disgusted with the itchy red welts left after a bite, but I never freaked out or stayed home to avoid them. Other birders wore long pants, but in the heat, the comfort of shorts was worth the risk of a bite. Sometimes I'd use bug spray.

I headed for the shower when I got home, which is when I discovered that we had gone through a huge swarm of ticks. There were dozens on me! Rosie must have had a hundred. I don't know how long I spent removing them from her, and in spite of being rewarded with treats for tolerating the process, she was not happy. I checked her again the next day and found more. Was this what she was trying to tell me back at Lake 22?

About week later I spiked a fever and called the doctor's office. The first thing they asked was, "Have you been exposed to ticks recently?" That gave me a pretty bad feeling. The doc gave me a prescription for an antibiotic and the fever soon disappeared. Unfortunately, the fever was only a small part of the illness. I was extremely tired. Each morning I'd get up after sleeping 11 hours or so, I'd drink a whole pot of coffee, and then I'd need to lie down to rest. I was taking 2 graduate credit classes at the time, so I'd drag myself over to the desk to work. By 5 PM, I'd be through for the day.

All my tests came back negative for 3 tick-borne diseases in my area of the Midwest: Rocky Mountain Spotted Tick Fever, Lyme disesase, and Ehrlichiosis. At the time, my doctor said that the tests were not too reliable, and he believed that I had one—or more! In spite of treatment, my extreme fatigue continued throughout the summer. The garden was overrun with weeds.

In September, 3 months after the tick bite, I was determined to go to my camp reunion. I told my friends that I had to be back about no later than 9 PM. I had a great time of course, and got home at 9:30 PM. Normally the last thing I do before bed is check that the doors are locked.

When I awoke the next morning, I found that not only had I not locked the door, I didn't even shut it. It was another 3 months before my sleep pattern returned to normal.

Later in 2009, Rosie's blood work showed that she had contracted Ehrlichiosis at some point. It was just 2 weeks ago though that I had some tests, and when my new doctor called with the results, she asked, "When did you have Ehrlichiosis?"

My bout with the disease was debilitating and not at all good for my garden, but I was lucky. Tragically, this week a healthy, middle-aged local woman died from a tick-borne illness. Another St. Louisan died in from Ehrlichiosis in June, 2009.

Tick-borne illnesses are scary, but I'm not going to quit enjoying the outdoors. Here are some tips for protecting yourself from tick exposure:

  • Pull your socks up onto the outside of your pant legs and wrap with duct tape. Ya gotta admit—it's a look!
  • Use bug spray with DEET on clothing and exposed skin. Don't forget to spray the dog!
  • Spray with permethrin on clothing. I spray permethrin on my jeans the night before a birding trip.
  • As soon as you return home from the woods and fields, put all clothing in the washer and dryer, check for ticks, and shower. Fortunately, it takes about 24 hours before an attached tick can transmit any pathogens.
  • Get rid of that invasive bush honeysuckle! Scientists from Washington University in St. Louis did experiments at the very same Busch Conservation Area, and found a connection between the abundance of bush honeysuckle, concentrated deer populations, and high density of disease-carrying ticks. Just another reason we should care about the environment!


  1. "I had always been a bit casual about ticks..." Same for me, although I don't often go through woods or fields -- how likely is it that a suburban garden would have a tick problem? Deer? Check! Bush honeysuckle? Check!

    As far as I know I've never been bitten by a tick, but I also sometimes have mysterious, long-lasting bug bites. How long do ticks stay attached? Is it possible it may be for only a few hours?

  2. Hi Nicole! I didn't know dogs could become so sick from tick-borne disease—glad to hear that King recovered. I'm sure I've had 100 tick bites myself over the years, and although they're always annoying, I didn't have nightmares till I experienced a tick-borne illness myself. Sounds like you made the right choice about not moving into that apartment!

  3. Hey Alan! I understand that most people who contract one of the tick-borne illnesses were never aware that they were bitten. Your "mysterious, long-lasting bug bites" could well be tick bites. It is possible that ticks can attach for only a few hours, especially the tiny nymph stage that's all too abundant in the fall. I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV!

  4. Yikes! I avoid walking through tall grasses and if I do by accident I check myself immediately. Haven't had any problems...yet.

  5. Well GWB, you've done it. I was sitting here feeling sorry for myself as yet another storm dumped itself onto the saturated ground and wondering if I would have to mop up the basement again. Edmonton, AB, has a truly miserable climate that seems to be spiraling towards a new little ice age or worse, but we have no ticks!

    Well, the jackrabbits and snowshoe hares have ticks. The poor ghost moose and other cervids have ticks. And the pernicious Peromyscus and other rodents and some birds have ticks. But none of them like to bite people. As long as you don't mind millions of mosquitoes and hordes of horseflies, a few arboviruses and anthrax being the only diseases they are likely to transmit, field work around Edmonton has no serious arthropod-borne threats.

    It's too wet to weed. Too wet to finish the new bed I started two weeks ago before it started raining every day. Too wet and cold for anything other than bumblebees to be flying. But there are no ticks. I like that.

  6. I always feel that prolonged cold, rainy weather is unfair. Here in summer though, a good rain is a nice break from mowing the grass, weeding etc. I don't envy your climate (except I might in August) but I do envy your freedom from ticks.

  7. In commenting on this post I feel like the fellow who says, "My grandpa smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and lived to be 95.” We all know smoking has many negative health consequences and the fact that one person beat the odds is irrelevant. So it is with ticks. The information you've provided is both accurate and prudent and I commend you for devoting a post to ticks. However, where I live in the Arkansas Ozarks, almost everyone (including me) has casual attitude about ticks and simply accepts ticks as one of the facts of life, like death, taxes and hot and dry summers. That's because “venturing into tick country” and simply going outdoors are synonymous.

    If we decide to do something unusual – an summer walk in the woods, berry picking, etc. -- my wife and I do take many of the preventative measures you've described. Still, during the height of the tick season in late spring/early summer, a few hours of routine outdoor activities like mowing the lawn or working in the garden will result in a dozen or so ticks some of which have attached before being found. That's just the way it is.

    We do perform frequent tick inspections and try to remove attached ticks ASAP. (I could be wrong, but I've read that most tick-borne diseases require around 24 hours of attachment to be transmitted.) It's a good thing we live in the boonies, because any new itch often results in immediate indecent exposure, but as tick season wears on it gets hard to differentiate new itches from old itches. I know the tick situation I've described will sound totally repulsive to anyone with an aversion to ticks (like Nichole), but it is accurate. If you live in the desert you either learn to live with sand or you move. If you live in the Arkansas Ozarks, you learn to live with ticks or move. We've learned to live with ticks.

    Tick-borne disease are real. As you've described, they are debilitating and can even be deadly. I urge everyone to take the preventative measures you've advocated – and steer clear of the Arkansas Ozarks during the spring, summer and fall.

  8. Thanks Marvin, you put the situation in a more complete perspective. I would never want to miss an Ozark spring or summer or fall! I too have learned to live with ticks, and I keep on learning more about them so I can take reasonable precautions.