Beware of ticks and teens, poison ivy, rabies and snakes
Summertime, and the living is … well, actually, it’s dangerous. The thought seems at odds with the sunshine, the green leaves, the great outdoors. But, in many ways, the wonderful summer months here in the Hudson Valley are the most dangerous time of the year. Being aware of the dangers remains the best way to avoid them, of course.
These dangers come at us from many different directions on different scales and at different speeds. While we’re enjoying the summer, we need to stay alert. It can make a huge difference.
What’s the biggest threat? A family of very small but very common arachnids, the ticks. On their own ticks are a hazard, and their bite is itchy and uncomfortable. But ticks also carry a variety of really nasty diseases. Most potent of them all are the grey-and-red-bodied Ixodes scapularis ticks. Deer ticks.
The list of tick-borne diseases is pretty long and scary. They share the most common symptoms, and can be quite difficult for a physician to sort out.
First and foremost, of course, there’s Lyme disease, which you’ve heard about, and comes in eleven slightly different strains of a spirochete bacteria, Borrelia burgdorfii. It appears that some strains are worse than others, but all of them are dangerous and for some people really debilitating, even life-threatening.
The only good thing about Lyme is that it takes a while, even a few hours, for the tick to pass it on to you. This gives you a chance to find the tick and remove it before transmission. If you do get Lyme the most usual symptoms are fever, headaches and a rash, often in the shape of a bull’s-eye target around the bite. However, the rash does not always occur.
Then there’s Anaplasmosis, much rarer, caused by another bacterium, Anaplasma phagocytophilum. It had other names in the recent past, but it is transmitted by the same black-egged Ixodes ticks. The symptoms include fever, with associated chills, head and muscle aches. These will occur within ten 14 days after the bite.
Both of these bacterial infections can be treated with Doxycycline, a powerful anti-biotic.
In addition, some Ixodes ticks carry Babesia, a parasite in the same family Apicomplexa) as Plasmodium which causes mlaria, and which operates in much the same way, infecting and killing blood cells. Many people do not exhibit symptoms, but those who do usually report fever, with the chills, aches and fatigue that go with it. There can also be an anemia leading to a yellowing of the skin (jaundice) and dark urine. Babesiosis can be life-hreatening to those with weak immune systems or those who lack a spleen.
Once diagnosed, Babesiosis can be treated with intravenous Clindamycin and oral quinine. Some people have strong reactions to those, so intravenous avoquone and iv azithromycin are suggested instead.
Finally, there’s the rare but terrifying Powassan Fever, caused by a virus in the Flavivirus family (West Nile, yellow fever, etc.). There have been about 60 cases reported in the US over the past decade. Symptoms include fever, weakness, seizures, vomiting, confusion and memory loss. There is no specific treatment, but severe cases need to be hospitalized. Deaths have occurred.
All of these nasties are part of the life cycle between Ixodes ticks and small- to medium-sized rodents, which serve as hosts. Ixodes scapularis, the most common problem tick, feeds on white-footed mice preferentially. Two other Ixodes ticks that feed on woodchucks and squirrels rarely bite humans. Ixodes Scapularis is the big problem, and the prime transmitter of Lyme disease to humans.
So watch out for ticks. Fortunately this can be done pretty easily. Wear light-colored long pants and white socks. Tuck pants in socks if you’re hiking or walking through tall grass or brush. Check yourself and your companions with regularity. Pull ticks off and either kill them or throw them into the brush.
Spray shoes and socks with insect repellant, either Deet or Permethrin. After a hike, ramble, picnic or run in the great outdoors, bathe or shower as soon as possible and perform a tick check just in case one got past you. Use a handheld mirror and a full-length mirror if at all possible. Check the kids, and the dog. Look under arms, around ears, in the hair and between the legs.
Also, it is advisable to check clothes and gear. Everything like hats and pants might want to get a spin in a hot dryer. Ticks are most vulnerable to heat and drying out. In fact, ticks are most likely to be found in damp, shady areas.
Following the danger of ticks, comes the danger of teenagers, as in Homo sapiens teenagerensis. Teenagers on their own or even in groups are not particularly dangerous, but when placed behind the wheel of an automobile they become potentially lethal.
The early summer season is the time of maximum peril, as this is when many teenagers have been given their first cars, have taken their first driving tests, and are now on the roads alone for the first time. They have not yet perfected the timing of such things as pulling out into traffic on a busy road, or slowing down and indicating that they’re about to make a quick right turn. They are also more prone than other drivers to the temptation to text and drive, if only because they’ve been texting since they learned to read and operate a cell phone and regard this art as second only to breathing.
So, on summer roads, drive defensively. Maintain good distances between your vehicle and those ahead of you. When you spot young drivers, keep an eye on them. Be aware that they may do unpredictable things, that they may also be texting while driving. Be prepared to take evasive action.
Next up is poison ivy. (Also poison oak and poison sumac). Despite the fact that we know about such perils, and know what they can do, a surprisingly large number of us end up in emergency rooms because we forgot.
If you like to garden, and you know there’s poison ivy around, wear gloves and long pants. If you’ve cut brush and pulled out weeds, which might include poison ivy, do not burn it. Inhalation of smoke from poison ivy can send you to hospital.
It’s also a good idea to equip yourself with a guide to these plants that includes good photographs for identification purposes.
The itchy painful rash is caused by the oil, urushiol, and this coats the leaves, stems, flowers, berries and roots. It’s also still there, even if the plant is dead. Of course, that oil can also be on tools, clothing, or even pet fur. Some people are extremely sensitive to the oil and may require medical attention if swelling of the face, mouth, neck or throat occurs. They may even struggle to breathe. The emergency room at the nearest hospital is the only solution in such cases.
Usually the rash will take a week or more to appear, which can make finding the source problematic, as in the case of a neighbor’s pet. for example. The rash will only occur where the oil touched your skin. It will last from one to three weeks, except in severe cases.
Those are the most common or usual dangers. The unusual include native animals, in particular animals infected with the rabies virus. The wild animals of the Hudson Valley include the iconic, such as the black bear, and the “invasive” such as the coyote. Most animals, other than deer are rarely seen in daylight, and that includes the most common rabies vectors, raccoons, skunks and foxes. If you see any of these in daylight, avoid them. Any wild animal behaving strangely, approaching you in daylight, seemingly unafraid, is definitely to be avoided. Move indoors, stay away from them. Rabies is a virus. Infected animals are suffering terribly and don’t know what they’re doing. They may bite, and their bite will require rabies treatments.
Also to be avoided, because of the threat of rabies, are bats. At night be sure to close windows and put up screens. Bats will sometimes enter attics or even houses. In such a case, turn off lights, open windows and leave the room. The bat may leave on its own.
Another unusual summer danger is a nest of the bald-faced hornet. These can become very large, holding several hundred hefty black and white hornets. The rule with hornets is simple. Leave them alone and they’ll leave you alone. They are predators on other insects, combing the forests for caterpillars, beetles and other bugs to feed to their young.
If disturbed, however, they can provide an experience that you will never forget. Children are the most likely to be affected, and a badly stung child should receive medical attention as soon as possible. Hornets are not yellow jackets, although they are wasps. Native to North America, they will not come scavenging at outdoor dinner tables. They don’t eat human foods.
If there is a nest, and it is not in your traffic patterns, then just leave it alone. If hornets or other wasps begin to build a nest around a doorway, or on a porch, then knock it down while the wasps are away. If that fails, reach for anti-wasp spray. Advise children, especially young male ones, to really, really, really leave that nest alone.
Also included in the unusual dangers are poisonous snakes. We have two kinds here in the Hudson Valley, the northern timber rattlesnake and the copperhead. The rattlesnake is a fairly polite snake, it lets you know when it’s unhappy. As with hornets and other things, it’s best left alone. This snake is often described as “sluggish” and can indeed seem so. However, it can become anything but sluggish if you make it angry and afraid.
The same rules apply to copperheads, a somewhat smaller venomous snake. They are highly camouflaged and often very hard to see, and will freeze in position if disturbed. Unless you actually touch them or step on them, they will stay put and glide away after you’ve gone. When out walking, watch where you’re stepping, and if you do spot a snake, just leave it alone and no harm will befall you. The one sure way to end up snake-bit and on your way to the hospital is to poke, annoy and frighten either of these species.
Finally, the giant hogweed. This exotic and often enormous plant, Heracleum Mantegazzianum, is a peculiar and so far rare danger. It can grow to impressive size, ten to fifteen feet high, with huge white umbrels of flowers the size of dinner plates. It looks like a gigantic version of Queen Anne’s lace or wild parsnip. However, the sap contains toxic furocoumarin derivatives and will cause terrible blisters, and if it gets into the eyes blindness. If you run into this plant while out hiking, please take note of the location and inform state police or the Catskill invasive plants organization at The Catskill Center (586-2611). Whatever else you do, do not touch it!
Okay? Let’s go over the drill quickly one more time. Check for ticks every day. Watch out for teenagers behind the wheel. Remember poison ivy. And leave hornets, snakes and wild animals alone.
The story and the prize for ultimate stupidity goes to the gentleman at a picnic a few years ago. Out of the woods trundled a skunk. Yes, a black-and-white skunk. The gentleman proceeded to “protect” his family by picking up the skunk. The skunk promptly bit him. He dropped the skunk and it ran back into the woods. He wound up receiving a course of rabies injections.