URI’s Center for Vector-Borne Disease Dr. Thomas Mather Talks Tick Safety

URI's Dr. Thomas Mather in lab

MP recently spoke with Dr. Thoma Mather, who joined the University of Rhode Island in 1992 from the Harvard School of Public Health and now serves as director of URI’s Center for Vector-Borne Disease and its TickEncounter Resource Center. His research focuses on tick ecology, area-wide tick control strategies, tick-bite protection, and tick-borne disease prevention. Dr. Mather’s research and outreach programs are diverse, including anti-tick vaccine discovery projects, evaluations of targeted tick control strategies, tick-borne disease risk prediction, and the development of tick-bite protection decision support tools and social networking strategies for tick-borne disease prevention. His work has attracted funding from various sources, including the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the US Department of Agriculture, the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the US Agency for International Development. Most recently, he has helped launch the Equip-4-Ticks Resource Center to help inform the public about best practices for tick protection.

Dr. Thomas Mather
URI’s Center for Vector-Borne Disease Dr. Thomas Mather / Photo courtesy of Dr. Thomas Mather

Ticks

Should we be afraid of ticks?

Ticks can carry dangerous illnesses, so it is best to stay protected against them. Today, ticks can be found in all 50 states and around the world. While they can be found everywhere, different types of ticks are in different areas and may carry different diseases. Here we discuss the most common ticks, where they can be generally found, and the diseases they may transmit. 

Most Common Ticks in North America

  1. Blacklegged (Deer) Tick (Ixodes scapularis)
  2. American Dog Tick (Dermacentor variabilis)
  3. Lone Star Tick (Ambylomma americanum)
Blacklegged (Deer) Tick (Ixodes scapularis)

As the tick that may carry Lyme disease, the Blacklegged tick population has grown tremendously throughout the United States, though they are most commonly found on the Eastern side of the country. The Blacklegged tick is also called the Deer tick because they are spread by their host, white-tailed deer. With this in mind, they thrive in wooded grasslands where there are plenty of animals to feed on.

Diseases that Blacklegged Ticks can carry: 
  • Lyme Disease
  • Babesiosis
  • Anaplasmosis
  • Hard Tick Relapsing Fever
  • Powassan Virus
  • And more…

Where do ticks generally hang out?

Ticks are usually more abundant on the edges of trails, so walking down the center can help you avoid ticks waiting to jump onto the nearest host. It’s also important to understand that the simple act of stepping off the trail to let someone by can increase your risk of a tick encounter. 

How can we reduce the likelihood of being bitten by a tick? 

Tuck in your clothes–ideally, tick repellent clothes

Ticks will attach anywhere on your shoes or clothing and then crawl onto your skin. Wearing permethrin-treated clothing is the easiest way to keep ticks from latching on and crawling up, but whether you are wearing repellent clothes or not, I recommend tucking your shirt into your pants and your pants into your socks.

Remove your clothes after being in a tick habitat and put them in the dryer

Putting your clothing in the dryer after being out in a tick habitat can help remove ticks that may be hiding. 

Do a thorough tick check

It’s important to do a thorough tick check on yourself, your kids, and your pets after being in a tick habitat, especially in areas where your clothing binds against your skin, such as your underarms. Learn more about Tick Checks at the Equip-4-Ticks resource center.

What should we do to protect ourselves from ticks?

Because of its long-lasting nature, I recommend permethrin-treated clothing to help repel tick bites. Ticks may grab on when clothes are treated with permethrin, but after a few seconds of exposure, they will generally fall off. You can get a variety of insect repellent clothing that is already treated, spray your own clothing and gear with permethrin spray, or send in your clothes using the Insect Shield Your Clothes program, and we’ll treat them for you. 

Top Benefits of Permethrin Treated Clothing:

  • Long-lasting
  • Don’t have to reapply it every time you step outside
  • Effective
  • Odorless
  • Invisible

Spray your shoes with permethrin spray

Nymphal and larval stage ticks latch on at shoe level, so spraying your shoes with permethrin spray can help reduce tick attachments. I recommend you do this once a month.

What are some of the symptoms of tick bites, and when do they start to show?

Not everyone gets the bulls-eye rash, otherwise known as Erythema migrans (EM) rash.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: 

  • The rash occurs in approximately 70 to 80 percent of infected persons
  • It begins at the site of a tick bite after a delay of 3 to 30 days (average is about seven days)
  • Expands gradually over several days reaching up to 12 inches or more (30 cm) across
  • It may feel warm to the touch but is rarely itchy or painful
  • Sometimes clears as it enlarges, resulting in a target or “bulls-eye” appearance
  • It may appear on any area of the body. 

Lyme Disease can cause various symptoms and serious side effects, including neurological and heart complications. 

Some of the most common first symptoms of Lyme disease include: 

  • A rash
  • Fever
  • Achiness

What should we do if we believe we’ve been bitten by a tick?

Finding a tick on yourself, your family member, or your pet can be scary. While removing a tick as soon as possible is vital, it is also essential to ensure that you do it properly and take the proper steps once it’s removed. This includes storing the tick and sending it in for testing if it carries a dangerous tick-borne disease like Lyme. 

1. Remove the tick

The best strategy for removing a tick is by using pointy tweezers like the ones from TickEase. By having something with a very pointy tip, you can get as close to the skin as possible and pull the tick out without squeezing the back part of the tick where the germs are.

How to remove a tick:

  • Get as close to the skin as possible with the pointy tweezers
  • Hold the tick firmly
  • Pull straight up in a slow, steady motion

2. Keep the tick in a plastic bag

After removing the tick, don’t throw it away. Instead, place it in a Ziploc bag. Most people don’t know or are uncertain about what type of tick they’ve encountered, and if you don’t know, you won’t know what kind of diseases it may be carrying. 

3. Identify the tick

It’s easy to confirm the tick ID–take a clear photo of the top side of the tick, and send it to TickSpotters, who can identify it for you within 24 hours and provide the following information: 

  • The type and life stage of tick 
  • How long it was attached
  • And what kind(s) of germ(s) it might have, or definitely didn’t, transmit to you

4. Send the tick in for testing

After the tick has been identified and TickSpotters has let you know if the tick that bit you has a high chance of transmitting disease-causing germs, you can choose to send the tick to a testing facility. 

It should be noted that while tick testing can be a helpful resource, it should not be used as a substitute for physician diagnosis of disease.

Tick Testing Services Recommended by TickEncounter:

Credible Tick Resources

Are there any free resources you know that offer credible information on tick safety?

Equip-4-Ticks Resource Center

Visit Equip-4-Ticks for expert tips, educational content, and a comprehensive video library with best practices for tick protection and disease prevention. 

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) 

Ticks | Ticks | CDC

Cover photo courtesy of Dr. Thomas Mather