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COLUMBUS, Ohio - Ohio State University acarologist Glen Needham and graduate student Ken Cradock make their way through tall grass, weeds and underbrush at Alum Creek, just north of Columbus. The researchers are hunting for an arachnid that causes more health concerns than the mosquito or the common cockroach.
After only a few minutes of searching, the researchers have found their prize scurrying across a white terry cloth netting: a tick, small enough to fit on one's thumbnail and easily overlooked in the grass.
With tick season in full force through the end of July, the researchers are recommending people examine themselves, their children and their pets for ticks after hiking through parks or if they live along wooded areas.
"Ticks are mainly found on the edge of where grassy and woodland areas meet, a zone known as an ecotone," said Needham. "They are normally not found in open grassy areas or deep in the woods." Needham said ticks have been getting a bad rap over the years because of the severe diseases various species carry, mainly Lyme disease and spotted fever. "People in general react negatively to ticks. They hear about ticks through Lyme disease and it makes them afraid," he said. "I think lack of education and lack of exposure cause people to overreact.
The deer, or blacklegged tick, the carrier of Lyme disease, is not found in Ohio, said Needham. "There have been no reported established deer tick populations in the state and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) recognizes Ohio as a nonendemic state." Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium that is transmitted through the bite of a tick to its host. Though not known to be fatal, the disease can cause chronic arthritis, neurological symptoms and cardiac problems if left untreated. Early symptoms include a rash around the site of the bite, fatigue, headache, neck pain, muscle stiffness, fever and swollen glands. If caught early, Lyme disease can be successfully treated with antibiotics.
According to the Ohio Department of Health, 63 cases of Lyme disease were reported in Ohio last year, but Needham speculates that the cases were from people who visited deer tick states, were bitten, and brought the disease back to Ohio. "It is also possible that the occasional deer tick will drop off a bird in flight, find a home in Ohio, and people get bitten that way." The tick disease most common to Ohio is spotted fever, known as Rocky Mountain spotted fever out West, and transmitted by the American dog tick, the most frequently encountered tick species in the state. "Ohio has more cases of spotted fever than Colorado does," said Needham. Ohio Department of Health statistics show that 22 cases of spotted fever were reported in Colorado from 1990-1998, while 143 cases were reported in Ohio during that same time period.
Unlike Lyme disease, spotted fever can be fatal if left untreated. Eighteen deaths have occurred in Ohio since 1964. Symptoms include sudden fever, headache, muscle pain and a rash that spreads to the arms, legs, trunk, palms and soles. Spotted fever can be successfully treated with antibiotics. Children appear to be more susceptible to the disease than adults.
Despite the seriousness of the disease, Needham said the odds of contracting spotted fever are low. "People have to keep in mind that contracting a tick disease is rare because the odds of a tick carrying the disease is low and the transmission time from the tick to the host is slow," he said. Less than one percent of American dog ticks are infected with the bacterium that transmits spotted fever, said Needham. "It's safe to say that if a person were bitten by 100 ticks in his/her lifetime, only one of those ticks might be infected," he said.
Needham added that it takes at least a day for the tick to transmit the disease to its host. "The tick has to feed for more than a day before it can successfully transmit the disease. That's why if you are in a tick-infested area, it's a good idea to check yourself as soon as possible," he said.
If one does find a tick, Needham said the best way to extract it is to grab it as close to the skin as possible with a pair of tweezers or a commercially designed tick remover and slowly pull the tick out. "Slowly is the key word here," he said. "The American dog tick secretes a type of glue as it's biting its host that hardens and seals the head in place so it can properly feed. If someone pulls the tick out too fast, the head can break off and cause infection." Needham said that using other techniques, such as nail polish, rubbing alcohol, petroleum jelly or a hot object to "back the tick out" don't work. "Those are just myths," he said.
The American dog tick is about three-sixteenths of an inch to one-eighth of an inch in size. It's brown with a distinctive whitish or grayish pattern on its back directly behind the head. The deer tick, by comparison, is about half the size of the American dog tick. It's brown and lacks the white markings on its back. Ohio is home to 12 tick species.
For more information on ticks, how to control them and how to remove them, refer to OSU Extension fact sheets HYG 2073-98 and HYG-2147-98, found on Ohioline at http://www.ag.ohio-state.edu/~ohioline/ or visit the OSU acarology website at http://www.biosci.ohio-state.edu/~acarolog/ticks.htm.