ADDISON COUNTY — Like many Addison County residents, Peter Grant thought he would take advantage of the recent mid-March, warm-weather spell by taking a walk behind his Bristol property off Route 116.
But roughly 600 feet down a rustic trail, Grant discovered he was taking along some unwanted guests.
“I saw some little black spots on my pants, and they were moving,” Grant said.
Precautions when heading into areas that might harbor ticks:
• Wear light-colored clothing with a tight weave to spot ticks easily.
• Wear enclosed shoes, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. Tuck pant legs into socks or boots and shirt into pants. The chemical permethrin — which does not pose a danger to humans — kills ticks on contact and can be applied to clothing.
• Check clothes and any exposed skin frequently for ticks while outdoors.
• Consider using insect repellent. Vermont Department of Health officials said DEET — commonly found in bug spray — can be effective when applied to clothing.
• Stay on cleared, well-traveled trails. Walk in the center of trails. Avoid dense woods and bushy areas.
• Avoid sitting directly on the ground or on stone walls.
• Keep long hair tied back, especially when gardening.
• Bathe or shower as soon as possible after going indoors (preferably within two hours) to wash off and more easily find ticks that may be on you.
• Do a final, full-body tick check at the end of the day (also check children and pets), and remove ticks promptly.
Further inspection confirmed what he had feared — the black dots were deer ticks, notorious carriers of Lyme disease.
Vermont Department of Health officials are concerned that the ecological stars are aligning for a particularly nasty tick season, and they are warning people to take precautions while engaging in outdoor activities this spring and early summer.
The expected larger tick numbers, officials said, can oddly enough be traced to a bumper crop of acorns — also called a “mast” — that occurred a few years ago. Those acorns have provided sustenance for white-footed mice, which in turn are fed on by tick larvae.
Erica Berl, an epidemiologist with the Vermont Department of Health, explained that ticks mature in two-year cycles. So the ticks that were larvae last year will now molt into nymphs, ready to affix themselves to hosts for blood sucking.
Adult deer ticks are very small — approximately the size of a sesame seed. Males are black, while the females have a brick-red abdomen and a black shield near the head.
“What has my attention is that the mast year was 2010, which means areas — especially around oak forests — may have more ticks and therefore Lyme disease,” Berl said.
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that can cause a skin rash, swollen joints and flu-like symptoms. It can cause more serious health problems for the frail and elderly and if it goes untreated.
Symptoms of Lyme disease include feeling very tired, chills and fever, muscle and joint pain, headache, swollen lymph nodes, and a bull’s eye-type rash. The most common treatment for the disease is antibiotics.
Ticks, Berl explained, like to live in low-hanging branches and forest floors, where they can latch on to small mammals, birds and, of course, deer. They are also happy to feed off humans and mammalian pets. She said they typically feed once, drop off the host, mate and lay eggs.
The number of cases reported to the Department of Health has steadily increased since 2005, according to state officials. In 2009, there were more than 240 reports of people with Lyme disease who were likely exposed to it in Vermont.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]