Public Health & Recreation

Annual Tick Season Includes Arrival of New Invasive Species

An Asian longhorned tick nymph, left, and an adult female. (CDC)

This year’s tick season has brought an unwelcome development beyond the usual concerns about the disease-bearing arachnids with the confirmation of what one scientist said is a new invasive species in the Northeast.

The Asian longhorned tick, which poses a threat to livestock, was found in April to have moved to the Rhode Island mainland after an initial discovery on one of the state’s islands last year.

“This is truly an invasive species,” said Thomas Mather, a professor of public health entomology at the University of Rhode Island.

The ticks pose a risk to livestock because they attach themselves to various warm-blooded animals to feed. If too many attach to one animal, the loss of blood can kill the animal.

Mather said he found four Asian longhorned ticks about a month ago in South Kingstown while looking for the common blacklegged ticks known to bedevil outdoor enthusiasts and pet owners with the threat of Lyme disease and other infections transmitted through their bites as they hatch and grow to maturity in spring and summer.

Tick season will be in full swing as the nation marks Memorial Day on May 31.

“We’ve been seeing sporadic nymphs since April,” said Mather, noting these efficient carriers of disease will continue to spread as temperatures rise. “Somewhere around the week before Memorial Day they start to reach their peak numbers.”

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) announced in late September that the Asian longhorned tick had been detected on Block Island, about 9 miles off shore. But Mather’s recent discovery was the first on the state’s mainland and the presence of both nymphal and adult-stage ticks indicates they have been present for at least one life cycle, he said.

Known by the scientific name Haemaphysalis longicornis, the Asian longhorned tick was first detected in the United States in 2017. As of early October 2020, the tick was known to be in northeastern states including Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Other states where the tick appears include Arkansas, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Mather said the Asian longhorned tick differs in a few key ways from the blacklegged ticks, which are also known as deer ticks for their habit of using white-tailed deer as hosts.

The Asian longhorned tick is a parthenogenous strain, meaning females produce without mating, and can be found in batches of thousands in grass, shrubbery or on animals. But they don’t require the same high levels of humidity needed for survival by other tick varieties, Mather said.

“They don’t mind being out in the open” said Mather, noting the arachnids can live in sunny areas beyond the moist lawn edges, fallen leaves or high grass areas normally targeted by homeowners or professional pest controllers applying insecticides.

Blacklegged ticks carry Lyme disease. (CDC)

Ticks feed on blood, with the blacklegged strain preferring white-tailed deer and white-footed mice, which are a primary source of tickborne Lyme disease. Up to 70 percent of white-footed mice in Rhode Island carry the Lyme bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, Mather said.

The parasites transmit infections by exchanging blood with those they bite, whether animals or humans. The longer they remain attached, the more blood and germs they pass, making their quick removal paramount to avoiding Lyme disease, which causes headaches, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, muscle and joint aches, fever and chills.

“It takes some time for the Lyme disease-causing bacteria to move from the tick to the host,” according to the CDC. “The longer the tick is attached, the greater the risk of acquiring disease from it.”

The first known instance of an Asian longhorned tick biting a person was in June 2018 in Yonkers, N.Y., which was reportedly confirmed by the CDC. As testing continues in the United States, “it is likely that some ticks will be found to contain germs that can be harmful to people. However, we do not yet know if and how often these ticks are able to pass these germs along to people and make them ill,” the CDC reported.

“This tick is a little weird. Happily, though, it doesn’t seem to like to bite people,” said Mather, who noted the Asian longhorned isn’t believed to be a Lyme disease carrier.

Deer ticks are among the most prevalent types in Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, along with larger dog ticks, although only the former carry Lyme disease.

Ticks can also transfer anaplasmosis and babesiosis, blood infections with symptoms including fever, chills and sweats, fatigue and gastrointestinal ailments such as nausea and vomiting. One in four ticks in Rhode Island carry the germ causing Lyme disease, but Mather warned vaccination strategies focusing on Lyme prevention alone can cause a false sense of security and possibly result in the other infections being overlooked.

Climate change has no direct effect on ticks, because they are affected by humidity levels rather than temperature. Without enough humidity, ticks will dry up like a plant without enough water, but they can survive in varying climates.

“These ticks are in Duluth, Minnesota, and Florida,” Mather said. Yet he explained the changes in global climate can impact ticks – hurting or helping them – by altering the number of animals on which they feed. “The change that we’re finding is more related to the presence or absence of reproductive hosts.”

An adult female lone star tick. (CDC)

Mather said Rhode Island also has experienced an increase in lone star ticks. Lone star ticks, which have moved northward in the United States for a decade, were previously only found off Rhode Island’s shore on Prudence Island, but now have infested Conanicut Island, Mather said.

The lone star tick is a “very aggressive biter but it won’t carry or transmit the Lyme disease germ,” said Mather, who added there is still a danger of the parasites transmitting anaplasmosis and babesiosis.

Mather said lone star tick bites can also produce a red-meat allergy. Ticks taking in blood from an animal can ingest a specific sugar — galactose-α-1,3-galactose, also known as alpha-gal — found in red meat and then transfer the material to humans. The resulting symptoms, including rash, hives, nausea and difficulty breathing, can take hours to first appear and possibly months to fully develop, making the bite, rather than the existing allergy — referred to as Alpha-gal syndrome — appear to be the cause of the adverse reaction.

The University of Rhode Island’s TickEncounter website provides abundant information about the arachnids and the harmful infections they transmit, as well as tools for sharing tick locations, strategies to avoid bites and blog posts by experts.

People who plan to be in tick habitats should wear clothing treated with the tick-killing chemical permethrin and use tactics to prevent the insects from reaching skin such as tucking pantlegs into socks. Daily tick checks are also important, especially in hiding spots including the backs of knees, inside armpits and around waistbands.

Regardless of the type of tick encountered, Mather echoed the CDC warning about removing the parasites as quickly as possible.

“The longer a tick is attached, the more likely it’s going to deliver an infectious dose,” he said.

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  1. This article downplays very much the significance of Alpha Gal allergy to mammal products that is carried by Lone Srar Ticks. It’s the number one cause of anaphalaxis in areas where the Lone Star is prevalent and. Ause alot more problems that that. The symptoms are wide ranging and severe. The ramifications of trying to avoid all mammal ingredients including those hidden in food as " natural flavors" and no oversight by the FDA to even include a mammal ingredient warning on the label. They are many and in numerous processed foods and restaurants. Many people are even fume reactant. More and more people are being diagnoses with this every day and it is even sometimes a subtle reaction that is no less dangerous as it causes inflammation and 30 percent more plaque build up in the arteries and is implicated in heart disease and autoimmune issues. Surgery and hospitalizations become serious indeed as there are many medicines as well as medical products and blood thinners for surgical use that are mammal derived. And you don’t want a pig valve e in your heart if yours hoes bad with this disease.There are numerous medical journal articles available to read online and scientific articles that reference the research science on thus. It may be a newer disease being discovered but it is not over lown. If anything it is unrecognized and or tested and treated. Please research your topic more carefully before making blanket statements brushing off the severity of a truly devastating medical diagnosis. I do hope that your state does not become a huge vector of this tick and disease but we to those that do become sensitized by a tick bite. It may take years to get diagnosed because no one wants to alarm people. A loved one has this condition and it remains high and active 18 years after the tick bites. It has changed their whole life, medical care, social interactions and psychological well being. Jyst think if you couldn’t walk out your door and smell the neighbors cooking meat or even eat in a restaurant due to cross contamination. Most people with this have to worry about one or both every day. Please educate yourself and please do not write such a misleading article. Just because one doctor who does not study it thinks it’s overblown diesnt negate the work from research doctors at UNC and UVA. Dr Scott Commins is the preeminent expert on this disease and at the forefront of education and treatment.

  2. Your downplay on Alpha Gal is disgusting and ignorant. It discredits this entire article. Educate yourself!!

  3. Totally written buy someone who has no idea at all about ALPHA GAL. Your ignorance will cost someone from getting medical attention they need and a cure for this horrible disease. Maybe one day you will be blessed by the unlucky bite that changes your life. You owe everyone who has this an apology

  4. Thank you for the insightful news story. I just want to comment on what you wrote about lone star ticks and alpha-gal syndrome (AGS). I understand that you are not an expert on this topic, and I wonder if you perhaps misquoted Dr. Mather with respect to his comment that warnings about lone star ticks producing AGS being overblown. People in the AGS community are upset, which is not helpful. There are a few things you should know. Some people have contracted AGS from a single exposure to lone star ticks, which is what happened to me. Next, researchers have found that lone star ticks can transmit AGS without having had a prior blood meal, and the juvenile ticks (aka seed ticks) can transmit it too. So, this completely changes how people should protect themselves from ticks. The common methods of mostly relying on tick checks are super risky, and instead folks should use an effective repellent and perhaps treat their clothing (I treat clothing with permethrin and use picaridin spray). You might want to edit your news story some. We all want people to be well informed and make good choices how to protect themselves. Hope this helps!

  5. Thank you for the edit and update. As a sufferer of alpha-gal I was quite offended by the original article. In fact I threatened to mail you a shirt with my random projectile vomit on it since it was considered just an upset stomach 🤷🏻‍♀️ Suffice it to say you have saved yourself. Having alpha gal is something I would never wish on anyone. It’s a day to day struggle not just for me but my entire family. It affects all of us. We all have to worry about my exposures, reactions, and God forbid we go somewhere that someone is cooking a burger. Mammal is in EVERYTHING (like v-8 juice which is supposed to be veggies). Take a second and look at the labels. Anything that says natural flavors? That’s mammal. Filtered water? It’s filtered with bone char from? You guessed it mammals. Sugar is bleached the same way. Guess what else is? Toilet paper! Ever have an allergic reaction down there? Trust me you don’t want to. And God forbid if you are a woman with a monthly (🙋🏻‍♀️) because those products are also made with mammal. To go vegan on just the stuff I mentioned you will double if not triple the cost. This is just a snippet of an image into my life. Again thank you for the revision from this frustrated mom

  6. I have had the misfortune of being bit by a deer tick in 2002 and sought medical attention when the bullseye rash appeared at the bite site and flu like symptoms getting worse. First doctor refused to help me, laughed me out of his office saying we don’t have those ticks around here, luckily I found one who was better educated and although the bullseye rash is evidence enough he also ordered testing that sadly came back negative but the rash was proof enough and he treated me for Lyme disease very aggressively and after 6 months I started feeling better and have been in remission since. The Lonestar tick that transmits alpha Gal bit me in 2019 and symptoms developed and testing came back positive for alpha Gal, unlike Lyme disease with proper treatment you may get betterwith alpha Gal there is no treatment or getting better soon or getting better EVER for most. It is horrible and you are sick most of the time, you can’t eat hardly anything because of hidden ingredients that should be against the law for them to be hidden behind "Natural Flavoring" as the ingredient, did you know one thing that is included in the ingredient of "Natural Flavoring" in vanilla extract? Beaver urine! tell me who wants to consume that? God only knows what else is in "Natural Flavoring" but one thing for sure we the consumer and the ones who risk their life if they eat them DO NOT KNOW. Eating use to be one of my most favorite things in life now it is a chore to have to read labels very carefully and be limited to a few safe foods that you can eat, Boy do I miss a juicy steak or grilled burger, bbq ribs and the like. Life sucks with alpha Gal and it is by far a bigger life changing medical condition that one wrong move or poor choice could end your life than Lyme disease and deserves advanced research and help for those of us who have to live with it every single day of whats left of our lives.

  7. I have had this for over 15 years have had to go to OBX hospital 7 times due to breathing problem I educated all my friends and resturaunts that fix my food. It took a long time in NC for people to believe it comes from a tick wish more would be written about this for Doctors and people.

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