The Rhode Island Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Management are concerned that the mild winter could lead to an overabundance of ticks this year and is urging residents to continue practicing social distancing when outdoors and to take additional precautions to avoid direct contact with ticks that can transmit Lyme disease.
According to 2018 RIDOH disease data, Rhode Island had 1,111 cases of Lyme disease, with an incidence rate of 105 cases per 100,000 people, giving it the nation’s fifth-highest rate of the disease. Reported cases of Lyme disease in Rhode Island increased by approximately 20 percent in 2017 and remained at a similar level in 2018.
“Summer is a wonderful time to enjoy the outdoors in Rhode Island, but there are also some health risks associated with the season, and tick bites are near the top of the list,” said Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of RIDOH. “Rhode Islanders should reduce exposure to ticks, check their bodies for ticks, and remove ticks whenever they are found to help protect against Lyme disease.
“Lyme disease is a common but frequently misunderstood illness that, if not diagnosed early and treated properly, can cause very serious health problems. But the first step is prevention. All Rhode Islanders can help keep themselves and their family members safe by being tick aware this year!”
Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected tick. An infected tick usually needs to be attached to a person for at least 24 hours to transmit Lyme disease. The ticks that carry Lyme disease can be found in parks, playgrounds, and backyards, but they are most common in very grassy areas and the woods. Ticks can be as small as a poppy seed.
The expected increase in the number of ticks in Rhode Island this year could be attributed to a variety of environmental factors that contribute to climate change, such as increased temperatures and rainfall. Rhode Island’s Lyme disease prevention work is part of larger efforts toward building greater community resilience, which will help communities prepare for, respond to, and recover from the adverse health effects of climate change.
“At a time when the COVID-19 crisis has forced us into closing state parks and campgrounds, it might seem incongruous to sound the alarm about Lyme disease,” said Janet Coit, DEM director. “Yet, Lyme is a very dangerous disease. With a very mild winter in which many more ticks than usual have likely survived until spring, it could be shaping up to be a bad year for tick bites and disease transmission.
“So, all of us, whether we’re taking a walk around the block, spending time in our backyards, or going fishing, should do our best to prevent tick bites along with respecting social distancing norms.”
The RIDOH’s Tick Free Rhode Island campaign highlights the three keys to tick safety: repel, check, and remove.
To keep ticks off people and pets, avoid wooded and brushy areas with high grass and leaves. When in a wooded area, walk in the center of the trail to avoid contact with overgrown grass, brush, and leaves at the edges of the trail. Spray clothing with permethrin to keep ticks away. Make sure to not spray onto skin. Wear long pants and long-sleeve shirts when outside and tuck pants into socks so ticks do not crawl under clothing. Wear light-colored clothing in order to see ticks more easily.
To check people and pets, for ticks, take a shower as soon as coming inside after being in grassy or wooded areas. Do a full-body tick check using a mirror; parents should check children for ticks and pay special attention to the area in and around the ears, in the belly button, behind the knees, between the legs, around the waist, and in their hair. Check pets for ticks as well because they can bring ticks into the home.
Remove ticks from anywhere on the body, as well as from children and pets. Use a set of tweezers to remove the tick. Grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible and pull straight up. If tweezers are not available, use fingers with a tissue or rubber gloves.
Most people who get Lyme disease get a rash on their body, though it may not appear until long after the tick bite. At first, the rash looks like a red circle, but as the circle gets bigger, the middle changes color and seems to clear, so the rash looks like a target bull’s-eye.
Some people don’t get a rash, but feel sick, with headaches, fever, body aches, and fatigue. Over time, they could have swelling and pain in their joints and a stiff, sore neck; or they could become forgetful or have trouble paying attention. A few people may even have heart problems. Rhode Island’s Lyme disease prevention work is part of larger efforts toward building greater community resilience, which will help communities prepare for, respond to, and recover from the adverse health effects of climate change.
The Tick Free Rhode Island campaign features three animated Tick Free Rhode Island videos. The videos show how to repel both ticks and mosquitoes, how to check for ticks, and how to properly remove a tick from the skin. RIDOH’s Rhode Island Tick Detective Workbook for Kids is also available online. To view the videos and get more information on Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases, visit health.ri.gov/ticks.