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VT researcher offers tips and truths about Lyme disease

Tick nymphs are as tiny as poppy seeds in comparison to the larger, more distinctive adults. Public Health Image Library

BLACKSBURG, Va. (WSET) --The Centers for Disease Control reports that in 2015, 95% of all Lyme cases happened in 14 states. Included in that list- Virginia.

Lyme disease is an infection transmitted by a tick. Only ticks infected with the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi can transmit Lyme disease.

With temperatures warming over the past years, Brandon Jutras says ticks are becoming a bigger problem, explaining Ticks not readily killed due to warmer winters, are coming out earlier in the season and spreading to more northern areas."

Jutras is a Lyme disease researcher in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech.

The CDC issued a report that diseases from biting insects, ticks and mosquitoes have tripled nationwide since 2004. Jutras says some of that could be because more people are reporting the bites, pointing out "Another factor likely playing a role in the increase is public and physician awareness.”

Out of all of the ticks, only four major species can transit the Lyme disease causing bacteria. Of those four, only one- the deer tick, is found in the mid-Atlantic region. However, Jutras warns, Virginia does have other ticks that can transmit other diseases.

Jutras says, even if somebody does find a tick on themselves, all hope isn't lost. He explained, "The duration of tick attachment, or feeding time, is important. B. burgdorferi lives in the gut of the tick, but is transmitted through the saliva. Once the tick bites, the bacteria have a rather long journey, which can take anywhere from 12 to 72 hours to be transmitted, so prompt removal is critical.”

As for the long held belief that burning or salting ticks is the only way to remove them, Jutras issued an emphatic "No!"

Instead he advised, "The only appropriate way to remove a tick is to get as close to your skin as possible with fine tweezers and pull. Any other method, including grabbing the tick by the body can actually accelerate the transmission process, increasing the chances of infection. Commercially available tick removers are also available and are effective.”

Ticks are out in the region, but Jutras said there are some things people can do to protect themselves. He advised, “Wear light-colored clothing while enjoying the outdoors and treat these clothes with DEET, or N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide, containing bug spray. This does work well at repelling ticks, and light colored clothing will allow you to spot the ticks more easily. When in high risk areas check yourself often, initial tick contact almost always occurs below your thigh.”

He also advised bringing a pair of tweezers when hiking. People can also keep them in their cars. Along with that, he advises carrying a small container will with rubbing alcohol. If you are bit, put the tick in the container with the alcohol. That will preserve the tick for future testing.

“If you’ve been bitten, don’t panic, promptly and carefully remove the tick and save it. The tick can be useful in possible future diagnostic efforts.”

Even after the hike, the threat from ticks isn't over. Jutras says your dryer can save you. He explained, "Ticks survive the washer and can remain on clean clothes. They do not, however, survive the dryer! If you have returned from a high risk activity, like hiking or camping, be sure to use the dryer on all articles of clothing.”

Finally, the threat of ticks isn't just for people. Pets are also vulnerable to ticks. Commercial tick treatments will usually kill the ticks if they start feeding. However, the ticks can use pets to get inside and then jump on to humans, so it's important to check pets for ticks often.

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