Some people worry less about ticks than about people who don’t take steps to avoid them.
“There was this nice retired gentleman going into the tall grass of the golf course to collect golf balls …” began Dr. Allen Fein, who keeps a jar of antibiotics at his Southampton office for recently bitten patients.
“The grass you’re walking in is loaded with ticks right now,” Brian Kelly, the owner of East End Tick Control in Southampton, recently warned total strangers on an Amagansett roadside,
“I am just so chagrined when I see so many people walking along the road with no socks on, or wearing Peds or something. Those are people who would say, ‘Oh, I would never walk on trails,’” said Jim Zajac, head of the East Hampton Trails Preservation Society, which just drafted a pamphlet about how to prevent tick-borne disease. “The ticks don’t honor the distinctions we would like to make. We want our walk to the Atlantic Ocean to be tick-free, and in our heads we make it so.”
The jury is still out on whether there will be more tick-related ailments this year than last, although there are signs that there could be.
“June, July, August—those are the big months,” said Deborah Maile, Southampton Hospital’s infection control director, who does the final review of Lyme disease tests, mostly for outpatients, from blood taken across the South Fork.
Ms. Maile, who came from Port Jefferson to work in Southampton four months ago, said, “I have never seen this much Lyme.”
Between January and June of this year, 201 of the blood samples were determined to be positive for Lyme disease, compared to 191 during the same period in 2012. Of this year’s positive results, 160 were taken in June, compared to 72 in June last year.
Overall, the hospital had 382 positive lab tests for Lyme disease last year. In June 2012, there were 11 positive tests for babesiosis and 15 for ehrlichiosis, two more diseases that ticks can transmit. In June 2013, there were 18 for babesiosis and four for ehrlichiosis, according to Ms. Maile.
Dr. Fein said he’d been seeing at least one or two patients a day with tick-related complaints at his family practice. “It feels like double,” he said of this year’s volume. The complaints started earlier than usual, at the end of March or the beginning of April, the physician said.
Dr. Fein found that he was hosting two ticks himself when he returned from an otherwise glorious trail walk in North Haven. In such a situation, “just take it off” promptly, he said: no Vaseline and no heat, which can further release toxins. “If it looks engorged, I would definitely get two doxycyclines at that time,” he said—which is why he keeps a big jar of them in his office.
People with symptoms of summer flu are better off starting a course of antibiotics than waiting for blood tests, especially since the drugs can fight other infections like babesiosis as well as Lyme, Dr. Fein said. He added that an accurate diagnosis can be tricky for visitors who go home to places where practitioners are unfamiliar with tick-borne disease. “I think we’re doing a disservice by not warning the tourists. I think we should educate our tourists,” he said.
Mr. Kelly said his phone “really will not stop ringing,” but that may be because of the number of people here this summer, many for the first time, as much as is it is that there are so many ticks. “The newcomers don’t know not to walk through the beachgrass,” he said, adding that others let their kids run in the woods next to their rental homes, then find ticks when it’s time for a shower.
This summer, Mr. Kelly’s company is giving out an informational card identifying different types of ticks and diseases to help “give people an idea of what they’re up against,” he said. “If you become educated about these things, you don’t have to worry about it so much.”
Both Mr. Kelly and the Suffolk County Health Department recommend keeping grass short and leaves and other lawn debris picked up, and Mr. Kelly suggests letting sunlight in as well. Other preventive tips and more information can be found at www.suffolkcountyny.gov and at www.health.ny.gov. The trails society’s pamphlet will be mailed to members with the next issue of Trail Times and made available through Facebook or at the East Hampton Town Natural Resources Department.
Mr. Zajac recommends permethrin-treated socks as well as light-colored pants for taking walks. In addition to wearing tucked-in, long-sleeve shirts and running clothing through a hot dryer after a hike, the County Health Department advises walking along the centers of trails.
According to the Suffolk County Parks Department, Cedar Point Park in East Hampton is “most problematic” in terms of ticks, as opposed to Sears Bellows in Hampton Bays or Montauk County Park. Emily Lauri, the department’s community relations director, said park workers heed the advice of the Health Department, wearing proper clothing and spraying themselves—though not the park—with repellents.
Mr. Zajac said the most exposed and least dense places tend to have the least number of ticks, although grasslands are pretty full of them and the white pine forest in Northwest Woods are much less so. He also pointed out that ticks are pretty much “a problem from the ground up.”
“They don’t fly, they don’t jump, they don’t have wings,” Mr. Zajac said, which means they can mostly only climb aboard between a person’s feet and knees.
Mr. Zajac stressed that gardeners, horseback riders, even everyday Joes are in the same boat when it comes to ticks. “One thing I try to impress upon people is, it’s not a trails issue,” he said, explaining that people can pick up a tick while taking out the trash or picking up a newspaper.
Mr. Kelly said much the same: “We can spray your yard a hundred times, but you can walk into your favorite restaurant in town, rub up against a bush, and get a tick on you.”
Mr. Kelly flags a brushy area off Wireless Way in Southampton in May “just to see what the ticks are doing each year.” He takes a sheet and drags it, then flips it to see his haul. One quick drag typically lands 50 to 100 ticks, “no problem,” he said.
Surprisingly, this year Mr. Kelly not only found fewer deer ticks, but found that lone star ticks were outnumbering them about 10 to 1. Deer ticks, or blacklegged ticks, can transmit Lyme disease, as well as babesiosis and anaplasmosis, while lone star ticks can transmit ehrlichiosis, as well as tularemia and STARI, according to the Suffolk County Health Department.
“It seems like, 10 years ago, there was no lone star ticks out here,” said Mr. Kelly, who saw them first in Montauk, then to the west in East Hampton, “and now we’re seeing them everywhere.” He said lone stars lay eggs in little clutches, and that the young ticks produce the same discomfort in humans that chigger bites would.
The lone star is indeed “quite abundant here,” according to Dan Gilrein, an entomologist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. According to Mr. Gilrein, “the complaints we hear and will continue to hear about ‘chiggers’ are really from lone star tick larvae, newly hatched from eggs, that cause the tiny irritating and numerous bites this time of year.”
As of the second week in July, Dr. Fein was treating those bites as well as some stings from Portuguese man-of-wars. He had yet to hear any complaints about the Asian tiger mosquito, a sometimes carrier of West Nile virus and eastern equine encephalitis, whose range has been advancing east from western Suffolk County.
“What a way to ruin your vacation,” the doctor said.