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Experts say tick population on the rise on the East End

After a mild winter, experts are warning of an especially bad tick season in 2021.

Experts say the lack of a deep frost on the ground this winter, combined with a large acorn harvest two years ago, have allowed tick populations to flourish.

“The mice like to feed on those nuts and if the mice have a lot of food, they’re the reservoirs for tick-borne disease,” Dr. Anna-Marie Wellins of Southampton Hospital said. “So more food, more mice, more ticks, more ticks that are infected.”

That fits with trends some doctors are seeing. Dr. Erin McGintee, who is on the medical advisory board for Southampton Hospital’s Tick Resource Center, said the number of alpha-gal allergies she diagnosed in 2020 was “considerably higher” than in 2019. Alpha-gal, which is associated with Lone Star ticks, causes allergic reactions to red meat. 

She doesn’t really focus on other tick-borne diseases, but Suffolk County tracked higher infection rates of Lyme disease among ticks in Southold in 2020 — at 58% among adult black-legged ticks, it was 20% higher than the infection rate in 2019. The infection rate for Lyme disease among the nymphs of that species remained relatively stable, at 46% as compared to 44%. 

“I have some theories,” Dr. McGintee said, referring to the higher number of alpha-gal diagnoses. “I don’t know if my theories are correct. But … one thought was that it’s just because we have so many people out here.”

She pointed out that the population on the East End increased during the pandemic. “Maybe summer people came out in March and never left,” she said. She also suggested the pandemic may have led people to opt for outdoor activities more than usual, causing higher exposure. 

“And then I think maybe the third reason could just be that the more years that this allergy is around, the more people are becoming aware of it,” she said. “So it may be that people are more likely to recognize their symptoms as an alpha-gal allergy and seek out evaluation and testing for it.” 

Dr. Wellins, who has also seen more patients come in with concerns about tick-borne disease, expressed a similar sentiment. 

“I do think … that the public are becoming more educated, and they are pulling the ticks off sooner, they’re more vigilant than they have been. So I think the education is working,” she said. 

Dr. Wellins pointed out that deer, which often carry ticks, are also more displaced — forcing them to migrate to residential areas. 

Deer are not the only species that carry ticks. Dr. Wellins said ticks will grab onto any animal — including dogs and people — and feed for a few days before dropping off. 

Dr. Wellins said that what people think are bites from chiggers, tiny arachnids, are actually bites from Lone Star larvae. There are no chiggers on Long Island, she said.

“[Female Lone Star ticks] lay … a nest of eggs, and you walk into those areas with your bare feet or sandals. Now those larvae are very much more aggressive than the deer ticks are,” she explained. 

Dr. McGintee called the Lone Star a “hunter tick.” 

“It really actively seeks out prey,” she said. “It senses carbon dioxide coming off people and animals, and it actually will pursue you. Like if you’re sitting on your lawn, and a Lone Star tick senses your carbon dioxide, it’s not just like it stumbles upon you. It will actually track you.” 

Southampton Hospital’s Regional Tick-Borne Disease Resource Center offers information online as well, along with a help line for tick removal and physician referrals at 631-726-TICK. They also offer free personal tick removal kits, which can be requested on the help line or by emailing [email protected].

Dr. McGintee recommends that anyone who suspects they may have the alpha-gal allergy should see an allergist. She advises, though, that people should not get tested for alpha-gal unless they have symptoms. 

“I know that sounds kind of scary to people, because they say oh, I had a Lone Star tick, so what am I supposed to do, wait till I eat meat and I have anaphylactic shock and then go see an allergist? And the truth is, it’s probably somewhere in between,” she said. 

As with other food allergies, it’s possible to see a false positive test result. 

“On the other hand, if you get a Lone Star tick bite, it might not be the smartest thing in the world to go out and eat a huge hamburger two weeks later,” she added. “Because we know that if you’re going to get alpha-gal allergy, you’re going to be at your biggest risk for reaction in the couple weeks after a Lone Star tick bite. And we also know that bigger portions and fattier meats are more likely to cause bigger problems.” 

Dr. McGintee recommends people monitor their meat intake for the first month after a bite, to make sure they can tolerate leaner and smaller portions of meat without any symptoms. She emphasized that the alpha-gal allergy causes “acute allergic reactions occurring three to six hours after ingestion of mammalian meat, usually fatty mammalian meat.” The most common symptoms are itching and hives, followed by gastrointestinal symptoms. 

In the meantime, Dr. Wellins said to “take the time out to protect yourself.”

The Town of Shelter Island has outlined plans to protect yourself from tick bites.

• Dress appropriately: Light colored long sleeves and pants offer the best protection. Tucking pants into socks also helps.

• Wear repellents: There are several skin safe products and you can pre-treat clothing and footwear with permethrin. Factory treated clothing is also available.

• Avoid high risk areas: Stay on trails and away from tall grass and brush.

• Perform tick checks: Look close — they’re hard to see. Parents, thoroughly check the kids.

• Shower after outdoor activity: Helps with the tick check and washes away unattached ticks.Place clothes in dryer upon returning home: In the dryer first! Ticks die in very dry conditions.

• Protect your pets: Talk to your veterinarian about available tick prevention products. Taking steps to protect your property will also decrease your risk.

Below are actions you can take on your own property.

• Keep property manicured: Mowed lawns and clean flowerbeds make poor habitat for ticks and hosts.

• Design low risk outdoor spaces: Keep play areas, fire pits and barbeques away from wood lines. Alter tick habitat: Trim trees, hedges and brush. Periodically perform controlled burns where permitted.

• Treat tick habitat: Have a licensed person apply EPA/DEC approved products according to the label. Remember that broadcast application of any pesticide may also pose a risk to beneficial organisms.

• Deploy tick tubes: DIY or have a licensed person help. This will only target baby blacklegged ticks.

• Exclude deer: Fence what you can to keep deer (and other wildlife) away. Ticks come and go with them.

For more information, visit: shelterislandtown.us/deer-and-tick

Deer & Tick Committee ChairmanJames Bevilacqua, M.D., [email protected]

Amanda Gutiw, Secretary, [email protected]