Here in the Northeast, checking for ticks after a walk in the woods is fairly commonplace, mostly because of the prevalence of Lyme disease -- a potentially debilitating disease spread to humans by the nefarious deer tick. If you live in the Northeast and you have pets, checking for ticks isn't just commonplace -- it's second nature. So when scientists reported earlier this spring that 2012 would see a surge in Lyme disease, you could practically hear pet parents across the region honing their tick-checking and extraction skills.
But just six months later, scientists have given my family, and millions of families across the country, yet another reason to be vigilant against ticks: the Heartland virus.
When two Missouri farmers became sick after being bitten by ticks in 2009, and both reported memory loss, decreased appetite, fever, and showed low white blood cell counts, doctors treated the two for ehrlichiosis, a common tick-borne bacterial infection. But the men did not respond to antibiotics, and tests later showed they did not have any (known) tick-borne bacterial diseases. That's when scientists discovered a previously unknown virus in their blood.
The Heartland virus, named for both the region it came from and the medical center where the first known infections were treated, is actually similar to another virus recently identified in China. This is significant because researchers agree that the virus could be a more common cause of human illness than currently recognized.
While many factors of the disease remain unclear -- including whether it can be spread from person to person and whether ticks are solely responsible for infection -- the CDC released their findings last month to help flag similar patients as possible victims of the Heartland virus, with the hope of getting a better understanding of where and how the disease has spread.
For now, taking precautions to prevent tick bites is the best way to avoid the Heartland virus and other tick-borne illnesses. But how do you know if you are taking the proper steps to protect yourself against potential bites -- especially if you have pets who can unknowingly give these disease-carrying pests a free ride into your home?
Most responsible pet parents already protect their furry friends with a monthly dose of flea and tick preventative. But while that helps, it might not be enough to keep your entire family -- both two and four-legged -- protected against tick-borne diseases.
Next time you go roaming the great outdoors, be sure to follow these simple tips for keeping tick-borne sicknesses at bay:
Avoid Enemy Territory
Ticks tend to dwell in moist, humid environments like leafy and grassy areas. Piles of leaves, wood or mulch, plant shoots, shrubs and weeds are all potential breeding grounds. Always walk in the center of trails to reduce your chance of coming into contact with ticks. If you have a back yard, consider protecting the lawn from surrounding wooded areas with a border of gravel or wood chips to limit tick migration.
Revolt and Repel
Tick repellants provide a valuable extra layer of protection. Do a little research to determine what kind of product is right for you and your pet and use it! If you're concerned about the chemicals in most products, there are a number of natural alternatives and other products available.
Stick It to Ticks
Keep a lint roller in your car to use on your clothes after spending time in wooded areas. That way, you can pick up any unattached ticks before you carry them into the car or house. Depending on your dog's coat, you can even give him or her a once-over, too. Don't wait until you get home and ticks have had time to attach.
Get the Right Tools for the Job
If you do happen to carry an attached tick home, skip the tweezers and try using tick removal tools such as the Tick Twister, Tick Stick or Tick Key. Removing these little buggers can be tricky, so using a tool specifically designed to help will make the process as pain-free as possible.
X Marks the Spot
If you do find an attached tick on you or your pet, remove it carefully, wipe the bite with an antiseptic, and (if you've been bitten), circle the bite with a permanent marker. This will help you monitor the bite site for any abnormal reactions. If a rounded or "bulls eye" rash, or any other skin irritation develops in the area, report it to your doctor or vet.
Ticks, mosquitos and other bugs are a fact of life, but they don't have to keep you and your pets indoors until winter. Take the time to make a few simple preparations to give you a leg up on pesky parasites, and go out and enjoy these final weeks of lingering daylight and evening breezes.
While the discovery of the Heartland virus proves that there is still a lot we don't know about insect-borne illnesses, it serves as a timely reminder that an ounce of prevention is always worth a pound of cure.