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HealthConnections - Tick Borne Diseases


This episode of HealthConnections centers on diseases that are transmitted from infected ticks to humans and the various types of ticks in Tennessee and how to protect oneself from ticks. Dr. Carole Myers, a professor emeritus in the University of Tennessee College of Nursing, talks with Dr Becky Trout Fryxell, an entomologist at the University of Tennessee Herbert College of Agriculture, whose specialty is improving human and animal health by understanding and managing insects that carry diseases, including ticks, mosquitoes and flies.

WUOT’s Carole Myers: Until we had our preliminary discussions, I had not fully considered that there were so many species of ticks, that the disease's, each species of ticks transmit are different, and that different types of ticks are active different times of the year, a lot to digest about ticks. Can you please give our listeners a high level overview focusing on ticks and tick borne illnesses common in Tennessee?

Becky Trout Fryxell: Absolutely. So first, I want to say Tennessee is a beautiful state, we have a lot of wildlife, we have a lot of habitats here. And with that, we're going to have a lot of different ticks and tick species. I think it's really important to know that we have ticks year round here in the state of Tennessee. In the summer months, a lot of us are used to getting exposed to Lone Star ticks. But in the winter months, we have a lot of black legged ticks now. And so that's kind of why we're here to talk about black legged ticks in Tennessee.

In preparation for our conversation, I gained an appreciation of how wily ticks are, can you please share the advantages ticks have gained over time in the work that they do?

Yes. And so this is some of the stuff that we do in my laboratory here at UT. And I think I want to step back and think about the different places that you frequent. I know my family and I have developed patterns about where we play and where we eat and where we go to school and even where I park. So ticks are just like us, and that they have developed these similar patterns over time they use the same hosts in the same environments. And again, that's what we're trying to figure out is when the ticks are going to be there or when the hosts are going to be there and where they're active is wherever the hosts are going to be active is when the ticks are going to be active too. So I think the things that are really interesting for Tennessee is that we do have these different habitats with different hosts using the habitats. And so the ticks have figured out where the hosts are going to be. And so it's our job to figure out where they're going to be as well so we can prevent ticks getting on us.

Okay, so I heard you primarily mentioned two types of ticks that we need to be concerned about in Tennessee. Would you repeat what those two types of ticks are?

Yes. So in the summer months, we really need to be concerned about the lone star tick. This is the tick that is responsible for the Ehrlichia Heartland virus. And of course, the alpha-gal syndrome, which is the red meat allergy, some are familiar with. The other tick that we do need to be concerned about is the black legged tick. And this is a tick that has black legs. So it's fairly easy to identify. But this tick is responsible for the agents that cause Lyme disease.

Okay, and what time of year is that tick more active?

The black legged tick is active in winter months. And so that's again, why we're here to talk about tick safety in the winter, which is not something we normally talk about.

Okay, great. So now that we have a better understanding than we did about ticks, and their use of hosts in the environment, let's dive down into tick borne illnesses in Tennessee.

Yeah, so people who use the outdoors need to be aware year round of ticks and that includes hunters. Right now we are getting ready to go into deer season. And so you know, anybody who's out there harvesting animals needs to be aware that some of these black legged ticks may move from their harvested animal to them. What we've noticed with my research of working with foresters is that even though Lone Star ticks are very common on our foresters, what we're seeing is that those black legged ticks that are infrequently collected from these foresters, so those are any outdoors, people, you know, Smoky Mountains National Park, or more 40% of those black legged ticks that are found for on people have been confirmed with the agent causing Lyme disease, the bacteria.

What can our listeners do to prevent tick borne diseases? And how does one prevent a tick bite and subsequent illness? What can we do?

This is a big part of our research program right now is to try to figure out how to prevent tick encounters or tick bites. And so there's different ways we can think about it, the first thing to do is we can protect ourselves. And so we can, you know, wear pants and long sleeves out into the environment, we can make sure we tuck our shirts in. And really, the thing that I try to tell the people who I work with, is that if your skin can touch the vegetation, that could be a tick getting onto you. And so that vegetation is really important. And so keeping the vegetation lower, or mowed is also important. Staying on trails, instead of going off into the woods is equally important too. Some of our current studies do suggest that mowing the vegetation can really help reduce the ticks in a population by drying out that area ticks like a warm, humid environment and that's exactly what Tennessee is, a warm, humid environment.

What about finding a tick on our pets and our exposure to ticks through our pets?

Oh, yeah. So there have been a number of studies that have shown that we love our animals, and sometimes we sleep with our animals in bed. And so we do recommend that you don't sleep with your pets that, you know, they have their bed and you have your bed. But yeah, so if you do get a tick on you or your animal, please remove it as quickly as possible. Be safe, don't use fire, don't try to, you know, do any of the old wives tales, just get yourself some tweezers, make sure that the tweezers are all the way down at the bottom of the mouthparts. So you can get the mouthparts and fully remove them. And then save the tick, put it in a sealable bag, stick it in the freezer, but make sure you write on the bag, you know, when the tick was removed and who it came from. But yeah, keeping all of this information together is really important. So should something happen, you can take that tick with you to the doctors or to the veterinarian, and they can say okay, this was a lone star tick. Your chances of having Lyme are like not possible because this tick can’t transmit it. But you might have something else like Ehrlichia. So they might be thinking that the black legged tick could have the agent causing Lyme disease and so kind of being aware and monitoring your symptoms.

Okay, so I have had an encounter with a tick, I've had a tick bite and remove the tick and I put it in a sealable bag, and I put it in my freezer. And then what? How long am I concerned that I could have been exposed to an infection?

So, it depends really on how long that tick has fed on you. So, if you got it right away, I wouldn't be concerned at all. I would keep it in the freezer because I'm an entomologist, and I'm interested in those things. But you, a non entomologist, maybe keep it for two weeks or a month and then feel free to throw it away. But if you did notice that this tick took a large blood meal, hold on to it and really kind of pay attention. You could always send it to us here at the University of Tennessee and we can identify the tick for you and let you know what species it is and help with your doctors, too.

Tick Intake Form 

This transcript has been lightly edited for content.

Greg joined WUOT in 2007, first as operations director and now as assistant director/director of programming. His duties range from analyzing audience data to helping clear WUOT’s satellite dish of snow and ice. Greg started in public radio in 2000 in Shreveport, La., at Red River Radio and was, prior to coming WUOT, at WYSO in Dayton, Ohio, where he also was director of programming and operations.