July 8, 2020

Ticks, Lyme Disease Pose Threats To Locals, Health Department Warns

By Donald Gilpin

The Princeton Health Department has seen 195 cases of COVID-19 this year, more than all other diseases investigated by the town, but prior to this pandemic the most prevalent disease investigated by the Health Department was Lyme disease, which averages almost 70 cases per year.

The Princeton Health Department pointed out that the threat posed by ticks goes far beyond Lyme.  “Almost every Princetonian knows about Lyme disease caused by the bite of the black legged (aka deer) tick, but not all of us know that deer ticks in New Jersey can also carry such diseases as anaplasmosis and babesiosis, and that there are other ticks such as dog ticks and the lone-star ticks that cause their own misery, such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ehrlichiosis, and Powassan disease,” Princeton Health Officer Jeff Grosser and Princeton Health Department Educator Volunteer Francesca Calderone-Steichen wrote in a collaborative email.

They went on to note that mild winters, wet springs, and global warming increase tick infestations and that local residents should take precautions:

Grass should be cut short to about three inches. “Ticks prefer woodlands and high grass over open lawns because they prefer moist shade over dry sunny environments,” Grosser and Calderone-Steichen noted.

Field mice are a vector for ticks, and the Health Department recommends the use of “tick tubes,” cardboard tubes stuffed with cotton treated with permethrin, a tick-killing chemical.  Mice collect the cotton and take it back to their nests, and the permethrin in the cotton kills the ticks.

Deer control, since deer are also vectors for ticks, can help eliminate ticks. Grosser and Calderone-Steichen suggested that spraying the perimeter of your property once a month with a mixture of natural ingredients that taste terrible to deer helps to prevent encroachment on your property. Several companies in New Jersey will do this spraying, which might  — no guarantees — keep deer away and help prevent the spread of ticks.

Spraying pesticides for ticks is controversial, Grosser and Calderone-Steichen warned, because it can also target beneficial insects like honeybees, ladybugs, butterflies, and fireflies. It can also reduce critical food sources for wild birds just when they need them the most, and, if applied incorrectly, can pose a hazard to children and pets. 

“If you do decide to, spray, please ask whether the company has a written plan to protect non-target organisms,” the Health Department warns. “Be skeptical and think twice about ‘all organic’ claims, and remember that the use of chemicals can breed insecticide resistance.”

Family pets, Grosser and Calderone-Steichen pointed out, frequently bring ticks into the house.  “Check family pets for ticks and remove them if you find them,” they wrote. “Use tick or flea prevention products as directed by your veterinarian.”

When venturing outdoors, the Health Department  recommends light-colored clothing, long sleeve shirts, pants tucked into socks, and the use of tick repellent on exposed areas. “Do a thorough tick check after coming home,” said Grosser and Calderone-Steichen. “If you find a tick, follow proper procedures for removing it (See video demonstration at www.youtube.com/watch?v=oGrK4ZKUfhQ), and tape it to a piece of white paper so it can be identified. Write the date you removed the tick on the paper. Contact your family physician if symptoms develop. Ticks removed within the first 24 to 36 hours after attachment generally do not cause disease.” 

Symptoms of Lyme disease include fever, headache, fatigue, and a skin rash called erythema migrans. If left untreated, infection can spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system. Most cases of Lyme disease can be treated successfully with a few weeks of antibiotics. Many people with early-stage Lyme disease develop a circular rash that looks like a bullseye at the site of the tick bite, usually around three to 30 days after being bitten. 

“Princetonians should be on the lookout for ticks until the first hard frost and start of winter,” Grosser and Calderone-Steichen noted. “A dry summer and fall may decrease tick populations some, but, realistically, they are here to stay. “

As a final word of advice, they wrote, “Protect possums, who are major tick removers. According to wildlife biologists just one possum can consume up to 5,000 ticks every season. Who knew?”