This year’s unusually harsh winter, paired with the possibility that spring will bring warmer temperatures earlier than expected, could come with a nasty downside for the Augusta area – an explosion of ticks just waiting for a fresh, warm-blooded meal.
“I’m assuming our tick season this year will be just as busy as last,” Dr. Jose Vasquez, the chief of infectious diseases at Georgia Regents Medical Center, said of tick bite cases. “What’s going to make the difference is if we warm up a lot quicker. If that happens, it could be worse.”
Dr. Gary Wilkes, a veterinarian at Westside Animal Hospital on Boy Scout Road, said the cold weather won’t have much impact on the ticks.
“Ticks are pretty resilient organisms,” Wilkes said. “The cold winter might have delayed their emergence, but they will be back once the weather starts to thaw.”
Most ticks have a two-year life cycle and are well regulated to survive the winter, said Dr. Ron Harrison, an entomologist with Orkin Pest Control.
He said ticks, which can cause serious fevers and rashes from bites, just don’t die from the cold. Instead, they typically retreat daily into leaf litter, mulch and grass to stay hydrated, then climb onto knee-high vegetation any time temperatures rise above freezing, hoping to latch onto a passing deer, raccoon, possum, dog, cat or human.
Though Harrison said it is hard to predict when most of the area’s tick population will begin to emerge for the spring, he estimated that eggs will begin hatching and newborns will start seeking a host toward the end of April.
“What our exterminators have found is that if an area has pleasant weather and then experiences a freeze or cold snap, it will disrupt a tick’s normal living environment,” Harrison said. “But if an area gradually gets cooler and remains relatively cold throughout much of the winter, like what
happened this year, there will be minimal impact on tick survival.”
Vasquez said most tick bites occur during the summer. He said Georgia Regents Medical Center saw 20 to 25 tick bite cases last year, at least two of which were for Lyme disease and several that resulted
in Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
According to reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Georgia and South Carolina each average six Lyme patients a year.
Wilkes said Westside Animal Hospital rarely sees cases of Lyme disease.
“We don’t have a lot of Lyme down here, but we certainly are loaded with ticks,” Vasquez said.
Lyme disease, which shares the same family as syphilis, consists of three stages, the first of which produces a rash that resembles a target or a bull’s-eye.
The second stage, the most common seen at Georgia Regents, involves chronic arthritis and cardiovascular and neurological problems. The third can result in loss of motor skills, and possibly dementia in the most serious cases.
Vasquez said Georgia Regents conducts a screening test and a follow-up test to verify the disease because the screening process is
sensitive and can result in false positives.
“The bulk of the tick bites don’t really lead to anything,” he said. “A tick has to be on the body sucking blood for 24 to 48 hours to transfer infectious bacteria. If it is removed within six to eight hours, the likelihood of getting infected is almost nothing.”
While a lighter pine tree canopy could reduce tick levels, experts say the insects tend to hide closer to the ground to feel the warmth of the earth’s radiation.
To avoid being bitten, experts widely recommend “deep woods” insect repellents that contain DEET, and full-body checks and showers after coming indoors from areas known to harbor ticks.
Harrison suggests treating yards with pesticides from April to mid-May and to spray or spread 5 feet extending from shrubbery into grass and at least 10 feet into vegetation areas.
“That will take care of all the ticks for the entire year,” he said.
If a tick is found, doctors said to use tweezers, not a match, and pull the insect at the head.
Wilkes said dryer sheets are also valuable prevention tools.
“To avoid ticks, I like to place dryer sheets in my socks, pockets and hat,” the veterinarian said. “I don’t know if it’s the smell or the fragrance, but it seems that loading up on Bounce provides good protection.”