By C. Rae Hozer
If you pull weeds early in the day to avoid the heat or transplant herbaceous perennials in the evening to avoid stressing the plants, then you are in the garden during peak mosquito biting hours and are at risk for tick bites, as well. Be on high alert during June and July. Garden smart — use an insect repellent containing 20 percent (or higher) DEET every time you go out to prevent bites.
Tennessee is one of five states (along with North Carolina, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri) that had more than 60 percent of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF) cases in the contiguous United States (1993 through 2010). The Tennessee Department of Health report "Prepare for Ticks in Order to Prevent Illness" at https://news.tn.gov/node/10540 says Tennessee had nearly 700 cases in 2012, a record-breaking number. See more RMSF statistics online at the Centers for Disease Control webpage www.cdc.gov/rmsf/stats/.
You know vegetation growing at the edge of wooded areas, along hiking trails, walking paths or golf course cart paths and beside streams is tick habitat, but infected ticks may be hiding among the greenery in your yard, too. Both the American dog tick and brown dog tick are RMSF vectors. Lone star ticks (associated with white-tailed deer) also carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans.
Ticks hitch rides on stray dogs that run through, on your pets and/or on deer browsing on your property. Check your body for ticks after coming in from working in your yard. Inspect children and pets when they come inside, as well. Ticks typically crawl to hairy or protected locations around the waist, in the navel (sounds funny, but it happens), in the groin and/or up to the neck and scalp. I run pieces of clothing worn outdoors through a hot cycle in the drier to cook/dehydrate ticks that might be hiding on them before throwing those items in the dirty clothes hamper.
The tiny nymph tick life-form commonly called "seed ticks" spread diseases. They may be difficult to spot during a visual inspection. Showering or bathing within two hours of being outside greatly reduces the infection risk from tick bites and minimizes chigger problems. A good scrubbing all over washes away chiggers. You may find ticks with your sense of touch that were missed with a sight check. Get your hands wet and soapy then go over skin where ticks normally hide to feel for bumps that might actually be ticks. I use a loofah back-scrubber to scrape off ticks hiding there.
Found a tick? Use tweezers to remove it. Removing a tick within 24 hours of a bite greatly lowers the risk of infection. Treatment that begins within five days has the best chance of curing a tick-borne illness. Grasp the tick close to the skin. Pull up with slow, steady pressure. Afterwards, disinfect the bite and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub or soap and water. Save the tick for testing, should you later develop signs of infection like a severe headache and fever followed by nausea, vomiting, muscle pain, lack of appetite and in some cases a rash.
If you have been in tick habitat in the past 24 to 36 hours and experience symptoms of tick-borne diseases (even if you don’t actually find a tick), see your medical provider. Early diagnosis and treatment with the right antibiotics is important.
The same goes for life-threatening mosquito-borne diseases like West Nile Virus (WNV). Human cases of WNV infection have already been reported in Tennessee, Texas, Mississippi and California this year. Early symptoms appear between three and 14 days after a mosquito bite. They may include fever, aches and fatigue. In severe cases, there may be disorientation, a stiff neck, stupor, tremors, convulsions, loss of vision, numbness and paralysis.
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Plateau Gardening is written by Master Gardeners for gardeners in Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland Region. Contact UT Extension Cumberland County at P.O. Box 483, Crossville, TN 38557 (484-6743) for answers to horticulture questions, free publications and how to become a Master Gardener. Send email comments or yard and garden inquiries to Master Gardener Rae, MGardenerRae@frontiernet.net.