North Fork Outdoors: Keep on the alert. Tick season is here

Nothing beats an outdoor dinner when the weather turns “summery” as it did over the Memorial Day weekend. We were sitting down for “happy hour” after a day of running our dogs down East near Freyburg, Maine, last Saturday and having a wonderful time — until the local deer ticks showed up at the party. First, someone picked a couple off his neck; then another tick showed up on a sleeve. Next, a crawler got peeled from a bare arm. Now the inspection of pant legs began in earnest. Suddenly the scene resembled an assemblage of monkeys and apes picking parasites off one another in an African documentary!

Thanks to a mild winter with very few days of freezing temperatures along the seaboard, Ixodes ticks are out in force this spring in fields and woods. They are, as always, particularly abundant wherever one finds deer, rodents, sandy soils and pine barrens, places like coastal Connecticut, Cape Cod and, of course, our very own Long Island. But we’ve found them plentiful inland, too, in the Catskills or the Black Forest area of central Pennsylvania.

Fortunately, you do not have to be an expert in the diagnosis of the half dozen or so tick-related diseases to know that preventive measures are quite helpful. As we’ve pointed out many times in previous pieces, you begin with insect spray or liquid on the skin (legs, forearms, neck) and clothing and wear the kind of clothing that makes ticks (the adults, at least) easy to spot in the first place. Rolling pants legs into your socks probably keeps the downstairs ticks from accessing your lower body, but we’ve never figured out where the upstairs ticks come from. How the heck can they get into the sweatband of a ball cap?

Our rule for outdoor clothing worn in marshes, forests and fields is simple — one and done. Once worn, the day’s attire goes into the washer, making for lots of laundry but lots of drowned ticks, too. As for pets, they are better protected than we are, thanks to annual vaccines and regular applications of systemic tick killers; we spray dogs lightly with repellents after days in the field and comb them out, minimizing the ticks that drop off in the house.

If you’re fortunate, you feel a tick moving on your skin during the day or two before it settles in for a bite, or you see it, looking like a tiny, dark, out-of-place scab. Then you kill and discard it. Three weeks ago, a day after we returned from a trip to Falmouth on Cape Cod where we had judged a trial in a wildlife area, I plucked a tick off my forearm. It wasn’t embedded, but it had been working with its enzymes, dissolving tissue before biting, and leaving a quarter-inch red spot surrounded by a pink area. So potent are the chemicals, I can still see the faint mark of the “burn” 13 days later.

When you’ve been bitten, the signs are sometimes unmistakable, sometimes not. The characteristic “spreading bull’s-eye” doesn’t occur in every case, and you may not see a tick embedded in your scalp or a hidden body part, especially if the insect is a sub-adult nymph or larva. And the onset of generic “Lyme disease” (e.g. true Lyme, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, etc.) weeks or months after the bite, shows up as aches, fatigue, weakness, or “summer flu-like” symptoms, mimicking many common ailments.

Forty years ago when tick-related diseases were first diagnosed in large numbers on Long Island and elsewhere, physicians would search diligently for medical proof of a tick bite. A few still do, insisting on thorough blood work and a “positive test.” Because the spirochete remains hidden in the system, one can contract “Lyme” without a timely positive test. You occasionally hear of folks who suffer for a year or more with consistently negative tests; this creates a dangerous situation, because “Lyme” never goes away, and can result in permanent nerve or heart damage as symptoms return in a cyclical fashion. Most wise physicians opt for symptom-based treatment with antibiotics like amoxicillin or doxycyclene and take the curative effects of the treatment as proof that patients were infected.

With thousands of these cases every year, bites from infected ticks are part and parcel of the outdoors on the North Fork and just about everywhere else in the mid-Atlantic region. If you tend a garden, hike, bicycle, go afield with your pets, or even “fire up the barbecue” in the back yard on weekends, watch for ticks and go at once for treatment if you see any sign of a bite from an embedded Ixodes tick. With outdoors persons, it’s not a question of “if” we’ll be bitten. It’s only “when.”

You cannot let these arachnids keep you from enjoying the North Fork outdoors, however. Fortunately, vigilance is simple, and treatment is simple, too!