ELLSWORTH — A not so favorite spring pastime for Mainers — dealing with ticks — is in full swing.
“We are getting lots and lots of tick calls and lots and lots of visits,” said Dr. Michael Murnik, a physician at Northern Light Primary Care Blue Hill. “Mostly we’re seeing lots of dog ticks.”
Dog ticks are the variety that do not transmit Lyme disease. Deer ticks transmit Lyme. Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium. Symptoms include fever, fatigue, headache and rash. If it is not treated, the infection can spread to joints, the heart and nervous system.
The combination of a mild winter and early spring have created a robust tick season, according to Griffin Dill, tick lab coordinator at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
”We’ve been seeing really high dog tick activity since the end of March,” Dill said.
Indeed, readers have disturbing tick tales to tell.
“Last week everyone in my household had at least one tick on them (four people),” said Nathan Milliken of Ellsworth. “I haven’t even been comfortable in the house. The one that got me bit my leg while I sat at my desk. My only time spent outside was the walk from my car into the house. My 3-year-old had one on his neck within five minutes of being on the garden patio (not in the garden). We can’t even go outside my house.”
Milliken said he sprayed pesticide outside, which he doesn’t like to do, but he likes even less the idea of someone in his family contracting Lyme disease.
According to Murnik, “only about a third of the deer ticks in this area carry Lyme.”
How do you tell a deer tick from a dog tick?
Dog ticks are larger than deer ticks. Dog ticks also have a marking on their backs — usually white or yellow. Deer ticks are a dark mahogany color with black legs, thus their other nickname, black-legged ticks. All are members of the arachnid family.
Size “goes out the window when they start to feed,” said Dill. “Size alone is not a great differentiator unless you have two unfed ticks side by side.”
When should you see a physician?
“Probably you don’t need to see us most of the time, particularly if it’s a dog tick,” said Murnik. “If you’re trying to judge your risk of Lyme, take a picture and send it to us, we’re happy to look at it.”
For those who really think they need to be seen by a provider, “we remove the tick or evaluate the site if they’re concerned about it.”
“People do get a local reaction to the bite no matter what kind of tick bite it is,” said Murnik. “People get worked up about the red spot.”
If you are bitten, clean the area with soap and water and watch it, the physician said. Use a warm pack on it if the area is sore.
“The first 24 to 48 hours, there’s a very low risk of transmission,” said Murnik. That’s why it’s important to do routine tick checks when you come in from outside.
Dill said in Maine, tick checks “haven’t really been part of our cultural history, but we need to change that.”
“Certainly over the past 20 years, the tick populations have grown,” he said. “It’s grown in size as well as geographically. The deer tick has expanded its range north.”
Climate change is another factor in the growth of the tick population, Dill said. “As climate changes, and we have warmer winters, this allows the tick population to expand their range.”
What to do when you go outside?
Create a barrier on your body in some fashion, Dill said.
Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants.
“The barrier can also be a chemical barrier through the use of repellants,” said Dill. “That can really work to minimize our chances of encountering a tick or a tick bite.”
You can buy insect repellant clothing at L.L. Bean and other businesses. Or you can buy a bottle of an insecticide called permethrin to treat your clothing.
There are nontoxic repellants, such as Buggle, as well as sprays that contain DEET, such as Off.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has information about what to look out for with symptoms of Lyme disease at https://www.cdc.gov/lyme/signs_symptoms/index.html.
You can collect your ticks and send them to the University of Maine Extension tick lab for analysis and identification. The lab can even tell you if the tick carries Lyme.
However, Murnik cautions that decisions about potential treatment need to be made before you would get results back.