‘Huge Increase’ in Tick Complaints

Spray your shoes, not your shoulders, experts say as range expands
David E. Rattray

A May 1 announcement from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that illnesses from tick, mosquito, and flea bites more than tripled from 2004 through 2016 came as no surprise on the South Fork. During that 13-year period, 642,602 cases were reported nationwide, according to the C.D.C. 

That figure may, however, be vastly lower than the actual number. “It’s hard to get accurate accounting,” said Rebecca Young, a registered nurse and member of the medical advisory panel at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital’s Tick-Borne Disease Resource Center. “Sometimes, a diagnosis is a judgment call on the part of the physician, and they don’t report to the C.D.C.”

On the South Fork, tick-borne illnesses are of far greater concern than those carried by mosquitoes or fleas; the few cases of the mosquito-borne West Nile virus reported annually in Suffolk County are mostly concentrated far to the west. But for those working or playing outdoors, Lyme disease, babesiosis, anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis, Powassan virus, and several others, including the rare but dangerous Rocky Mountain spotted fever, are causing increasing alarm. 

“There is a huge increase in calls and people saying they have Lyme,” Ms. Young said, “even at this point, this year over last. And the calls last year doubled from the year before.” In 2016, she fielded close to 400 calls, she said, a number that leapt to almost 900 last year. This year, “We’re only at the beginning of the season,” she said yesterday. “I don’t usually start getting calls until the end of May, but have been since April.”

In Ms. Young’s observation, the lone star tick, which if infected is known to carry ehrlichiosis and tularemia and is a suspected vector of Lyme disease and, possibly, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, is proliferating here. “The lone star tick is the new visitor here, and they are loving it,” she said.

The population of deer ticks, which can transmit a host of illnesses including Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, babesiosis, and Powassan virus, is also increasing, and “they’re very aggressive,” she said. “We’re going to see very shortly, when the deer tick nymphs have become adults, what’s going on” with infection rates. 

The surge in these tick populations follows an explosion in the white-footed mouse population, Ms. Young said. “The big issue is habitat destruction, which has been happening since farming began on Long Island. They drove out the mid-sized animals, who are predators for the white-footed mouse. . . . The only predators we have are scraggly, leftover foxes. Even rattlesnakes — the last time there was a rattlesnake on Long Island was, like, 1960. There are no bobcats, lynx, other mid-sized animals.” 

A warmer climate is also responsible for the surging tick population, Ms. Young believes. “It used to be that ticks died off in the winter, and now they can live more easily. We don’t get the winters we used to get. They could also be adapting to climate.” She once fielded calls from as far away as Vermont. “Now I get calls from Canada. I think that must be the warming trend.” 

On the other hand, she said, dog ticks, which can carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever and tularemia, “seem to be disappearing.”

Nine new pathogens spread by ticks and mosquitoes were discovered or introduced into the United States between 2004 and 2016, according to the C.D.C., seven of which are spread through the bite of an infected tick. In an email to The Star, Benjamin Haynes, senior press officer with the C.D.C.’s Infectious Disease Media Team, cited insects’ steadily expanding geographic range, the newly discovered germs, the transporting of germs by infected creatures, the movement of insects through commerce and trade, and “changes in the weather and environment.” 

Asked if climate change was included in the weather and environmental conditions he referred to, Mr. Haynes responded that climate was one of several reasons for the insects’ expanded geographic range. “Vector-borne diseases are very weather-dependent,” he said. “The main point is, because these diseases are so unpredictable, and these are very complicated diseases in nature, there are many different factors which affect where these diseases occur and how frequent they are.” 

Richard Whalen, an East Hampton attorney, leads hikes organized by the East Hampton Trails Preservation Society. He has never fallen ill from a tick bite, and permethrin, which kills ticks and mosquitoes on contact with treated clothing, is the reason why, he said. “It will attack the nervous system of insects such as ticks,” he explained. Because it is toxic, “You don’t spray it on your skin. Properly apply it to clothing, let it dry, and then put it on. I spray my hiking shoes, and pants from the knees down. On Saturday I was in Hither Woods, off the trail for a couple of miles, and didn’t get a single tick, and there’s no doubt there were ticks there.” 

Matias Whitmore, a landscape supervisor at Charlie and Sons in Amagansett, also uses permethrin. “That’s the only stuff I’ve found that really works,” he said. “I’ve sat in tree stands when I go hunting in the fall, and I’ve seen the ticks crawl up my boot, reach the permethrin, and just fall dead.” 

Cedar oil is also useful and can be applied to the skin, Mr. Whitmore said. “The problem with permethrin is, you apply it only on exterior clothing — you never want to make skin contact because it is hyper-toxic.”

No one on his staff has fallen ill to tick-borne illnesses, he said. “We have serious conversations about it with all our crews. We know the areas we work in, if it’s forests in Northwest Woods or in Springs, or in any tall grasses. You’ve got to take precautions.” 

Both Mr. Whalen and Mr. Whitmore recommend checking one’s body for ticks, and removing any within 24 hours to avoid becoming infected. “If you have been around ticks when they get on your body, you feel them,” Mr. Whalen said. “I might be in bed, feel something on my leg, and right away will know what it is. It’s a subtle feeling, and a lot of people don’t pay attention to that . . . I’ll turn on a part of my brain to be aware to feel anything. If it bit you, you will feel a bit of an itch.” 

According to the Tick-Borne Disease Resource Center, tweezers are the best tool for removing ticks. If bitten, tweezers should be placed as close to the skin as possible. One should try to grab the tick’s head or just above it, and pull upward with a slow and steady motion, trying to avoid breaking it. The bite area should be disinfected afterward with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.

“I do believe in the 24-hour rule, which I believe is scientifically supported,” Mr. Whalen said. “A deer tick or lone star tick has to be in you a minimum period of time, which seems to be 24 hours, before it can infect you.” 

While the C.D.C. recommends wearing both long pants and long-sleeve shirts, Mr. Whalen dismissed the latter suggestion. “If you’re in a tick area, I strongly recommend spraying shoes,” he said. “Much more than you realize, ticks strike your body very low. If you’re in short grass or brush, they will get on at shoe level. Ticks don’t drop from trees and branches. They’re in grass, leaf litter, and low brush. They’ll crawl up a little, roughly knee-high. If you find them higher, it’s because you were on the ground or they’ve crawled up.” 

Eva Moore, president of the trails preservation society, noted that it offers a pamphlet with recommendations for protection from exposure to ticks, which is available by emailing ehtps@hotmail.com. “One of the things I tell people when I’m leading a hike is, when you get home, take your clothes off and put them in the dryer, not the washer, for 10 minutes,” she said. 

Ms. Moore uses DEET, a repellent, to protect herself from ticks outdoors. “You can get them in your own backyard, too,” she said. “The other thing is, stay away from the high grass and bushes.” When hiking, “stay in the middle of the trail.”