By Pat Curran, Horticulture Educator, Tompkins County Cooperative Extension
(Originally published July 2010)
Question: Do I need to be concerned about Lyme disease and deer ticks?
Recent research has determined that about one-third of the deer ticks at a Tompkins County study site carried Lyme disease. Anecdotal reports indicate that deer ticks are much more abundant now, and that they can be active almost any time except the coldest days of winter. Deer tick nymphs may be as small as the period at the end of a sentence. Even when more mature and engorged with blood, deer ticks are almost never as large as the common deer tick. Tick samples can be sent to the NYS lab in Albany for positive ID and for assessment of how much they have fed, but this lab will not test the tick to find out whether it is carrying Lyme disease or not. Most of the literature claims that deer ticks do not infect people until they have been feeding for 24 or 36 hours. Retail stores carry a small plastic tick-puller that has proven very effective in removing even the smallest ticks, even those adjacent to cat's eyelids. Pet owners should get in a routine of checking their pets daily for ticks.
People who have contracted Lyme disease report that the early characteristic symptoms, such as "flu-like" symptoms and the bulls-eye rash, are often missing. So-called secondary symptoms, like the sudden onset of severe joint pain without any apparent cause, may be the first indication of the disease. A quick trip to the doctor for a blood test would then be in order. If the initial blood test is positive or borderline, part of the blood drawn is then sent on for a second, more accurate test.
Standard treatment of adults consists of the antibiotic doxycycline. This poses an additional problem for gardeners and other outdoor-loving people, because doxycycline makes the skin extra sensitive to sun exposure. During the doxycycline treatment, it is very important to cover up and avoid the sun as much as possible. Local gardeners have also discovered the hard way that doxycycline lingers in the system for a few days, so sunburn is possible for a few days after the treatment has ended.
While called deer ticks, these ticks are carried not only by deer, but also by mice and other small animals. A local gardener with an effective deer fence still deals with deer ticks on an almost daily basis. A nightly body check and shower to wash them off while they are still walking around is recommended. Another local gardener wears only light clothing in order to see the deer ticks more easily.
One of the more alarming aspects of this disease is that it is possible to contract it more than once. One does not become immune to Lyme disease so vigilance is going to be a continual fact-of-life. A vaccine is not available.
For more information about gardening, including Lyme Disease, consult the Cornell gardening website or call the horticultural hotline at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County at 272-2292.
Last updated January 29, 2021