One case of Lyme disease has already been confirmed in Sedgwick County this year, much earlier than last year’s three cases, and veterinarians and pet owners have been picking ticks off dogs for a month.
The incidences are just part of a bumper buzz about bugs this extended spring after a mild winter. Some people say ticks are thick, and most everyone’s seen some insect or other that’s made an early entrance, from miller moths to tiny grasshoppers to hatching bagworms.
Experts say it’s too simplistic and soon to say this year will be any worse than others for ticks and insects — some say they haven’t seen that many bugs, and weather is only one factor affecting insect numbers — but they agree that now is the time to be vigilant for the health of humans, pets and plants.
“We are concerned about people being exposed to ticks and developing a tick-borne disease, because even though it can result in minor symptoms, it can also result in a severe infection requiring hospitalization,” said Claudia Blackburn, health director for Sedgwick County. The county health department has investigated seven possible cases of Lyme disease this spring with one confirmed in April, she said. Last year, 20 cases were investigated and three were confirmed, in August, October and December.
But while people should take precautions and be responsive to tick encounters, reports about their populations — and those of insects — should not be overstated, K-State entomologist Bob Bauernfeind said.
“I get e-mails and I get phone calls. I don’t know if there are any more this year,” he said.
“People oversimplify what weather does to insects,” Bauernfeind said, because the bugs have adapted to survive in adverse conditions of heat or cold. “The insects native to Kansas, regardless of how severe or mild the winter, they’re going to be back year after year after year.”
That doesn’t mean there aren’t years of boom and bust for insects, but several factors play into their numbers, including the prevalence of their predators. For example, gardeners have seen plenty of aphids already this spring, but their ladybug enemies have been there, too, to eat them up.
Ticks can jump on people in the city as well as in the country, Wichita physician and infectious disease specialist Keck Hartman said. People are encouraged to monitor themselves and their children and pets for ticks when they’ve been outdoors. Removing a tick within 24 hours of its bite will greatly reduce the risk of disease, Hartman said.
Here are things to keep in mind — and supplies you may want to have on hand — when it comes to ticks.
Ticks hang onto, say, a shrub with their back six legs and leave the front two flailing for something warm-blooded to grab onto, Bauernfeind said. Avoid rubbing up against plants. “People should keep grass cut short and foliage trimmed,” Blackburn said.
Deer harbor ticks, so areas where deer are numerous, and especially areas around nature preserves where deer are numerous and hunting is not allowed, will carry more risk of tick encounters, said Christopher Rogers of the Kansas Biological Survey at the University of Kansas.
When you’re going to be outside where you think you might encounter a tick, wear a long-sleeved shirt and long pants with pant legs tucked into your socks, Blackburn said. Use an insect repellent containing Deet — 30 to 50 percent concentration, Hartman said; more than 50 percent is not necessary — on exposed areas of the skin (follow label directions). Use products that contain permethrin on clothing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises.
Checking for ticks
“Check for ticks every day,” Blackburn said. When children are outside, check them every two hours. “Make a routine. That’s where most of us fall down. Inspect your body: legs, groin, armpits, along the hair line, and in or behind the ears.” Some ticks are really tiny and may look like a new freckle. “If you look closer, it’s got legs.”
Remove a tick immediately. Use fine-pointed tweezers to grasp it close to the skin and, with gentle, steady pressure, pull it straight out, Blackburn said. Dispose of the tick by flushing it down the toilet, killing it with alcohol, placing it in a sealed container and putting that in the trash or, if you’re outside, crush it between two rocks. Then clean the area of the skin with soap and water and put an antiseptic on the skin.
To remove a tick from clothing, use the sticky side of Scotch tape.
After you’ve been bitten by a tick, detecting disease symptoms can be tricky, Blackburn said, because they can wait a month to show up. They can include fever and chills, a rash, aches and pains such as headache and muscle aches, and fatigue. Lyme disease can also cause joint pain and often results in a ringlike red rash at the spot of the tick bite.
Other diseases caused by ticks that are more common in the Wichita area than Lyme include Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ehrlichiosis and tularemia, Hartman said. Their incubation time is shorter — two to 14 days, he said.
If you have symptoms, go to the doctor.
Dogs that are in brush or that go to the lake are more susceptible to ticks than those that just run around a city yard, said Park City veterinarian Jamie Fisher. But she recommends that most dogs and cats that spend time outdoors receive tick prevention medication (which can be combined with a flea preventative). Be aware that the medication for dogs is toxic for cats, and don’t use just any anti-tick medication you find at the store. Many are ineffective, Fisher said; check with your veterinarian.
For more information about Lyme disease, go to the county health department’s website, www.sedgwickcounty.org/healthdept, which also has a link to the CDC’s site.
The Wichita Lyme Disease Support Group is sponsoring a free showing of a 2008 documentary about Lyme disease — “Under Our Skin” — at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Cargill Learning Center at the Sedgwick County Zoo. The documentary takes on the medical establishment’s treatment of the disease.