Beware of ticks this summer as experts say population on the rise

After a mild winter, experts are warning of an especially bad tick season in 2021.

The phones at East End Tick & Mosquito Control have been ringing “off the hook,” said owner Brian Kelly. And even though he takes precautions himself, he found a Lone Star tick on his chest last week.

“They’re not only happening at the beaches and the parks, these tick encounters, but most of the calls I’m getting are coming from people finding ticks in their own backyards all across the East End,” he said. 

Experts say the lack of a deep frost on the ground this winter, combined with a large acorn harvest two years ago, have allowed tick populations to flourish.

“The mice like to feed on those nuts and if the mice have a lot of food, they’re the reservoirs for tick-borne disease,” Dr. Anna-Marie Wellins of Southampton Hospital said. “So more food, more mice, more ticks, more ticks that are infected.”

That fits with trends some doctors are seeing. Dr. Erin McGintee, who is on the medical advisory board for Southampton Hospital’s Tick Resource Center, said the number of alpha-gal allergies she diagnosed in 2020 was “considerably higher” than in 2019. Alpha-gal, which is associated with Lone Star ticks, causes allergic reactions to red meat. 

She doesn’t really focus on other tick-borne diseases, but Suffolk County tracked higher infection rates of Lyme disease among ticks in Southold in 2020 — at 58% among adult black-legged ticks, it was 20% higher than the infection rate in 2019. The infection rate for Lyme disease among the nymphs of that species remained relatively stable, at 46% as compared to 44%. 

“I have some theories,” Dr. McGintee said, referring to the higher number of alpha-gal diagnoses. “I don’t know if my theories are correct. But … one thought was that it’s just because we have so many people out here.”

She pointed out that the population on the East End increased during the pandemic. “Maybe summer people came out in March and never left,” she said. She also suggested the pandemic may have led people to opt for outdoor activities more than usual, causing higher exposure. 

“And then I think maybe the third reason could just be that the more years that this allergy is around, the more people are becoming aware of it,” she said. “So it may be that people are more likely to recognize their symptoms as an alpha-gal allergy and seek out evaluation and testing for it.” 

Dr. Wellins, who has also seen more patients come in with concerns about tick-borne disease, expressed a similar sentiment. 

“I do think … that the public are becoming more educated, and they are pulling the ticks off sooner, they’re more vigilant than they have been. So I think the education is working,” she said. 

Dr. Wellins pointed out that deer, which often carry ticks, are also more displaced — forcing them to migrate to residential areas. 

“I was in Southampton Village [and] there was a doe in the parking lot,” she said. “It’s not unusual to see them walking on the street, on the sidewalk.” 

Craig Jobes, an environmental analyst with the Town of Southold and a member of the deer management task force, said that the deer population is no longer “exploding” and the town is “hitting record numbers almost every season now, as far as harvests go,” but they’re still “having a hard time bringing the population down.” 

“I mean, do [deer] have an effect on the tick population? Yes. But there are other factors as well,” he said. 

Deer are not the only species that carry ticks. Dr. Wellins said ticks will grab onto any animal — including dogs and people — and feed for a few days before dropping off. 

Mr. Jobes also expressed concern about the Lone Star tick. Of the three tick species on the East End, he said they’re the “most aggressive.” 

“Years ago, we never used to really have them around here and then all of a sudden, let’s say six or seven years ago, they really exploded with them. And they’re a really prolific tick species,” he said. 

Dr. Wellins said that what people think are bites from chiggers, tiny arachnids, are actually bites from Lone Star larvae. There are no chiggers on Long Island, she said.

“[Female Lone Star ticks] lay … a nest of eggs, and you walk into those areas with your bare feet or sandals. Now those larvae are very much more aggressive than the deer ticks are,” she explained. 

Dr. McGintee called the Lone Star a “hunter tick.” 

“It really actively seeks out prey,” she said. “It senses carbon dioxide coming off people and animals, and it actually will pursue you. Like if you’re sitting on your lawn, and a Lone Star tick senses your carbon dioxide, it’s not just like it stumbles upon you. It will actually track you.” 

Jonathan Malewicz, a Mattituck resident, said he’s encountered “too many” ticks already this year. 

“You kind of always have to check if you’re outside,” he said. The other day, he added, he checked his dog and “there had to be at least 15 ticks on him.” 

“He’s an inside dog,” Mr. Malewicz said. “I don’t know if he rolled in a nest. But that was in our backyard, [and] we don’t have any deer that come into our backyard, just squirrels and birds and things like that.” 

The Town of Southold posts information on how to prevent tick bites and what to do if you finds a tick on yourself, both online and in kiosks at the entrances to its trail systems. Southampton Hospital’s Regional Tick-Borne Disease Resource Center offers information online as well, along with a help line for tick removal and physician referrals at 631-726-TICK. They also offer free personal tick removal kits, which can be requested on the help line or by emailing [email protected].

Dr. McGintee recommends that anyone who suspects they may have the alpha-gal allergy should see an allergist. She advises, though, that people should not get tested for alpha-gal unless they have symptoms. 

“I know that sounds kind of scary to people, because they say oh, I had a Lone Star tick, so what am I supposed to do, wait till I eat meat and I have anaphylactic shock and then go see an allergist? And the truth is, it’s probably somewhere in between,” she said. 

As with other food allergies, it’s possible to see a false positive test result. 

“On the other hand, if you get a Lone Star tick bite, it might not be the smartest thing in the world to go out and eat a huge hamburger two weeks later,” she added. “Because we know that if you’re going to get alpha-gal allergy, you’re going to be at your biggest risk for reaction in the couple weeks after a Lone Star tick bite. And we also know that bigger portions and fattier meats are more likely to cause bigger problems.” 

Dr. McGintee recommends people monitor their meat intake for the first month after a bite, to make sure they can tolerate leaner and smaller portions of meat without any symptoms. She emphasized that the alpha-gal allergy causes “acute allergic reactions occurring three to six hours after ingestion of mammalian meat, usually fatty mammalian meat.” The most common symptoms are itching and hives, followed by gastrointestinal symptoms. 

In the meantime, Dr. Wellins said to “take the time out to protect yourself.” She outlined a list of tips: 

• Wear long pants and long sleeves, which will also help with sun protection (but be careful to stay hydrated). 

• Bug repellent or lemon eucalyptus oil on arms, legs, neck area — anywhere that’s exposed. 

• Wear light-colored clothing and avoid sandals. 

• Wear tight socks over your pants. “Not very fashionable, but it does work.” 

• Wear rubber boots or waders in the garden. 

• If you’re routinely outside, treat your clothes with permethrin (or buy pre-treated garments). You should do this outside, so there’s good ventilation. Very important: Do not apply permethrin to skin. Effective for limited washings. Only apply to fabric (sneakers maybe, but not boots). 

• Sometimes rolling a lint roller when you’re outside will catch ticks before they have a chance to get under your clothing. 

• When you come in from outside, put your clothing in the dryer — the high heat will kill ticks on the clothing. Do this before washing, which ticks can survive. 

• Take a shower after you’re outside and then do a tick check. “They like to attach to warm, dark places, like behind the knee, and the groin area, or the lower back, under the arms and sometimes the neck area.” Daily checks are important. 

• Have your property treated for ticks by a professional. Dogs and other pets could be potential carriers. 

• If you find one on your body, remove it immediately using fine-nosed tweezers or an equivalent, and get as close to the head as possible. Pull it out straight-up and use alcohol to disinfect the area afterward. “There’s a lot of old wives’ tales that we tell people never to use” — do not use petroleum or a lighted match. Not only could you hurt yourself, but the tick may regurgitate the contents of its stomach, potentially accelerating the transmission of pathogens. After you pull it off, put it in a sealed, clear bag and take a picture. Enlarge the photo to identify the tick.