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Earth Sense: Watch out for ticks when outside in warmer months
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Most Georgia residents have been bit by a tick at one time or another.

This nasty little arachnid thrives in a warm, humid environment, which our state offers in abundance. Sitting on a low-hanging leaf or branch, it waits to drop on a person or animal. After making contact, the tick seeks a convenient place to penetrate the skin and feed on blood. While this is unpleasant, the real hazard comes from the bacteria (Borrelia burgdorferi) which the tick can transmit into the host. The resulting infection is Lyme disease.

Lyme disease produces fever, fatigue, headache, joint pain, and a nasty rash. Antibiotics help, but symptoms can linger for months or even cause a follow-up condition called Lyme arthritis. 

When walking through woods, especially while brushing past low shrubs, one should always be fully clothed and examine the skin afterwards in case one of the little parasites made contact. An old remedy was to cover the tick with petroleum jelly so it would let go. But the CDC now recommends to avoid delays, and remove the tick as soon as possible with tweezers. A steady, slow pull while grasping its lower body does the trick.

One might guess that Georgia ranks highest in the U.S. for ticks and Lyme disease. But compared to places farther north, the number of occurrences here is actually low. In 2013, the CDC reported 1,726 infections in Wisconsin. Georgia had 8.  Connecticut, 2,111.

New England states like Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts have similar numbers, with high rates of Lyme disease in Pennsylvania (4,981!), New York and Maryland.

For healthcare providers, this could turn into a crisis during the next decades. The Northeast is predicted to experience significant climatic warming, which is already showing. Since 1970, according to the EPA, the Northeast has had an average temperature increase of 2 degrees. Warmer, more humid weather means extra habitat for ticks. As the northeastern states are also expected to have more days of heavy rain, the best guess at this time is that the region will have some years where tick-borne infections are average, and some where they approach epidemic levels.

Public health officials in Wisconsin and the Northeast have to expect an expansion of the tick problem during years to come. For us Georgia residents, this means to be more alert than ever, and carry a pair of tweezers while gardening or going into the woods.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His email is rkiefer@brenau.edu

 

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