OAKVILLE-WATERTOWN — Connecticut is facing a significant increase in the tick population this summer season, including two additional new species that residents should look out for.
The state Department of Public Health has confirmed there have been two cases of the Powassan virus in the state.
The Powassan virus usually spreads to people through a bite of an infected black-legged tick. Typically the virus is considered rare, according to DPH’s website; however, due to rising temperatures and climate change, more ticks are being found in the state.
Dr. Kirby C. Stafford, III, of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, told Voices the Lone Star Tick also has been slowly moving north due to the unusually warmer weather.
The Lone Star Tick, commonly found in the southeastern U.S., began to appear in Long Island in 1990s and was recently spotted in Connecticut.
“We started seeing a slow and notable increase in Lone Star Ticks submissions from Connecticut residents a few years ago to the tick testing laboratory,” said Dr. Stafford. “Then in 2017, I discovered a heavy population of them on Manresa Island in South Norwalk.”
He continued the DPH is seeing double the number of ticks as of April 2021 compared to the previous year. Currently, the DPH website has not released the 2020 numbers. In 2019, there were 851 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in Connecticut.
Dr. Stafford said people are spending more time outdoors due to pandemic fatigue, which has led to more tick activity. They are picking up ticks in sampling locations around the state where numbers are still low except for a population in lower Fairfield County.
Dr. Stafford said that ticks can be found year-round even in the winter months.
“We did an over-winter survivor study where we found a high proportion of Lone Star Ticks survived through the winter, particularly if they were covered by some leaf litter or snow cover, which insulates through the winter,” said Dr. Stafford.
“We have a small survivalship up in coastal Maine. They’re not established there yet, but now they are being found parts of Cape Cod and off the islands there and in Rhode Island.”
Other exotic ticks, such as the Asian Long Horn Tick, have made their way into Connecticut and other states due to illegal and legal pet trade and products brought in from abroad.
The Asian Long Horn has been identified in 15 states with an abundance in Westchester County, Staten Island and New Jersey. They were first discovered in the U.S. in 2017 and are native to eastern China, Russia, the Koreas and Japan.
“The interesting thing about the Asian Long Horn Tick [is] they reproduce without a male,” said Dr. Stafford. “We don’t have many of them in Connecticut yet, but it’s something we are keeping an eye on.”
The Gulf Coast Tick was detected in coastal Fairfield County as of August 2020, the first report of the population in New England. Traditionally Gulf Coast Ticks are found in southeastern states along the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Coast, according an article from the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, written by Dr. Stafford.
The majority of ticks local residents will run into are the Black Legged Tick and the American Dog Tick, which are found throughout the state, but they are not always vectors for Lyme disease.
Ticks only attack at an adult age, according to Dr. Stafford. The risk is dependent on the habitat where residents live, but the ticks considered common in the state.
A majority of Lyme disease cases are associated with two stages of the tick, according to Dr. Stafford, which has a two-year life cycle. Adult ticks typically come out in the fall, which is considered peak season, and look for a large animal host. Infection rates are higher with adult ticks.
Dr. Stafford reported that 48.2 percent of female ticks surveyed were positive with Lyme disease.
Approximately 476,000 Americans are diagnosed and treated each year for Lyme disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The estimate is based on insurance records covering the years 2010-18, so the estimate may be considered high. The CDC reports that in 2019, there were 34,945 confirmed cases of Lyme disease, 4 percent more than 2018.
The lymphno stage, which is right before the adult tick, will be coming out in June and July, its the peak. The lymphno stage is the stage where a majority of Lyme disease cases come from.
Ticks are easy to miss because the stage is so small, according to Dr. Stafford, but a majority of outdoor activities occur in those particular months. He said people who get Lyme disease may not even notice the tick that infected them and stressed the importance of tick checks.
“Ticks don’t hibernate,” said Dr. Stafford. “If there are warm temperatures in the winter, they still come out and can attach themselves to dogs.”
Dr. Derek Marotta, a veterinarian, told Voices that to remove a tick from a pet, use tweezers and get it off before it attaches. If the head is attached there is still an opportunity to grab the head. Do not use fire, he said, a common misconception when removing ticks.
“Call up your local veterinarian to remove a difficult tick if the head is buried or burrowed in there,” said Dr. Marotta. “Sometimes you essentially let it go because an animal will wall off foreign material and the body will expel it naturally. You don’t want to aggressively go into the skin and cause more trauma.”
Dr. Stafford said if a tick is found, residents should carefully remove it and submit it to the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station for testing or through a local health department. Ticks will be tested for Lyme disease.
“Bear in mind a positive tick doesn’t necessarily mean submission has occurred if you have removed the tick in time,” said Dr. Stafford. “That is important.”
He noted it will be up to the individual if they want to consult a personal doctor after a tick bite. However, identifying symptoms for an early diagnosis and treatment is extremely important to prevent any later complicated manifestations.
About 70 percent of people will have the characteristic Lyme rash, also known as the expanding red rash described like a bullseye, according to Dr. Stafford, and flu-like symptoms can occur with or without the rash.
“You can miss it if you are single and it’s on your back or head and scalp,” said Dr. Stafford.
He explained there is a high risk of exposure to ticks while gardening and yard work activities. He suggested people wear long pants and high socks that are tucked in since ticks are typically found in low vegetation.
“You would be surprised at how fast they can move up the body after they have attached your lower leg or foot,” Dr. Stafford. “They could potentially be attached anywhere on you.”
Dr. Marotta said to always check animals, even if they are just on the patio, because ticks can still be present. He suggested to be overly cautious even with indoor pets and to understand Connecticut is really bad for ticks, calling it imperative for pet owners to be consistent with prevention methods.
“There are a multitude of options, the more you can do the better,” said Dr. Marotta. “There is always a risk. The goal is to reduce that risk.”
Signs that a pet may be infected are lameness without a history of traumatic events, increased thirst and urination, lethargy, tiredness and decrease in appetite. Some Lyme cases can lead to infected kidneys, which can be confused for a UTI, but assessments are done through blood tests. Dr. Marotta recommends the Lyme vaccine for dogs.
Dr. Marotta noted over-the-counter products seem to be less effective and prescription strength are usually more protective, but it still depends on what the animal can handle.
“What I like to talk about is risk mitigation to decrease as many chances as possible and to have those protections,” said Dr. Marotta.
Lyme disease was first described in Lyme in 1976, according to a news release from the Yale School of Medicine. Dr. Stafford described the oldest case of Lyme disease from 5,000 years ago from the ice man that was discovered in the Alps.
He said there was evidence found in his DNA that he was infected with Lyme disease. Dr. Stafford said ticks were abundant during colonial times, according to a journal kept by Swedish naturalist Pehr Kalm, who came through Connecticut and documented his travels.
In the late 1800s there were no ticks in Connecticut because trees had been cut down and the majority of deer were hunted down, which led to a loss of habitat. During this time, ticks survived in parts of Long Island and some islands off of Cape Cod or in private hunting preserves.
Deer were brought back into the state to help rebuild the population. In 1896 there were only 12 deer in the state, according to Dr. Stafford. As the deer and forests came back, ticks did as well. Today Connecticut is largely forested.
“We have an abundant wildlife population that supports ticks,” said Dr. Stafford. “People also build homes in the woods where the ticks inhabitat.”