Summer has finally arrived in the Green Mountain State. Boats are sailing across Vermont’s scenic lakes, cyclists have taken to the streets and trails again and hikers are reaching for summits. Unfortunately, with warmer weather and long days outdoors comes tick season.
Tick-related visits to emergency rooms and urgent care facilities in the month of May were above the 2004-17 historic average, according to the Vermont Department of Health. Added to this year’s season is the threat of lone star ticks, a more aggressive parasite that track down hosts by following the trail of the air they breathe out, the health department says.
While the state has not confirmed the presence of these ticks in Vermont, their discovery in neighboring Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New York may indicate a future residency in Vermont.
“When you look for an organism and you don’t find it, you never know for sure if you didn’t find it because it’s not here or if you didn’t find it because it’s just so rare,” said Bill Landesman, an associate professor at Green Mountain College and researcher of the microbial ecology of tick-borne diseases.
According to Bradley Tompkins, a state epidemiologist who specializes in tick-borne diseases, multiple Vermonters have reported believed encounters with the lone star tick.
“Colleagues in all of our neighboring states have documented the presence of this tick in their locations,” Tompkins said. “It’s reasonable to believe the lone star tick is here, and it just hasn’t been recorded yet.”
The health department’s Project Lone Star team visits areas where people suspect the ticks are present and screens for them, he said.
Tompkins said some of the risks associated with lone star tick bites include ehrlichiosis, a flu-like illness, and tularemia, which causes an ulcer at the bite site, swollen lymph nodes and fever. Only one-third of adults who contract ehrlichiosis develop a rash, compared to the 70 percent who do with Lyme disease.
“The tick can transmit different diseases that we’re not used to here in Vermont,” Tompkins said. “We’ve never had a confirmed case of ehrlichiosis in a Vermont resident who didn’t travel outside of the state.”
A particularly nasty ailment associated with the lone star tick is Alpha-gal syndrome, or an allergy to red meat, Tompkins said.
In the Rutland County sites where Landesman conducts his research, the tick count has been lower than last year.
“Our peak site had 125 ticks last year and, with the same amount of sampling … basically a year later, we got 30 ticks.” He hypothesized the lower numbers may be attributed to this year’s cooler, drier spring.
In Milton, signs at local parks bear images of ticks accompanied by warning messages.
“We remind [park users] to check their body,” said Kym Duchesneau, the town’s recreation coordinator. “Make sure you check your pets and take precautions.”
Landesman cautioned tick populations are variable and that low numbers this year don’t necessarily project the same for next year and don’t signal a tamer tick season.
“They’re certainly out there. I don’t want to give the impression that they’re low across the state,” he said.
Landesman advised Vermonters remain vigilant even if the season proves to have a low tick count.
“Low years seem like a more dangerous situation because you might let your guard down,” Landesman said. “That’s the most important thing … never let your guard down.”
This includes the indoors, Landesman said, since pets and visitors can carry ticks that spread disease into your home or vehicle.
“When you think that the tick season is over, they are still out there,” he said. “It just takes one.”
Tompkins advised Vermonters wear long sleeves and pants while hiking, as well as use insect repellent and permethrin, a compound that immobilizes or kills ticks on clothing.
He recommended twice-daily full body checks – “like brushing your teeth,” Landesman said – with particular focus behind the knees, on the back, in the groin region, behind the ears and in armpits.
“This is a risk that we face in Vermont,” he said. “But there’s no reason that you can’t go about your daily activities safely and enjoy them.”