How Michigan researchers are tracking ticks, Lyme disease risk, how to remove one

20 years ago, ticks in our area were more of a nuisance because they rarely carried serious diseases. Unfortunately, that has changed.

There is no doubt that tick populations in the state of Michigan are growing and moving into areas where we initially did not have concerns. 20 years ago, ticks in our area were really more of a nuisance because they rarely carry serious diseases. Unfortunately, that has changed.

In response to that change, researchers are now becoming more creative in tracking ticks and identifying how often they carry serious diseases; a particular concern is Lyme disease. To get a better understanding of how researchers are getting their data, we spent an afternoon with Dr. Jean Tsao, an associate professor in the department of fisheries and wildlife and large animal clinical science at Michigan State University. She has been studying ticks for nearly 30 years.

According to Tsao, it was not until about 2014 that they began seeing an increase in black-legged ticks, also known as deer ticks, establishing themselves in Michigan. Since then, her research has identified the tick population spreading further east all the way to counties bordering Lake Huron.

Read more: Michigan’s 5 most common ticks to watch out for

The tick population of greatest concern is the deer tick, but they have also seen an increase in Lone star tick populations as well. The Lone star tick has been found specifically in Berrien County. It is responsible for causing red meat allergies in addition to other illnesses.

Researchers routinely use a technique called dragging to find tick populations in the brush along a trail. Tick dragging involves pulling a large cloth over an area. Ticks that are looking for a host will often cling to that cloth and can be picked off, identified, counted, and studied. Researchers also trap mice in the woods in order to study tick populations.

The mice essentially collect the ticks during their travels. When the mice are captured, the ticks on them can be identified and tested as well. Another part of their research involves a small biopsy taken from the ears of the mice. That tiny tissue biopsy is tested in the lab for the presence of Lyme disease and anaplasmosis.

That gives researchers an idea of whether the mouse was recently infected even if they did not find a tick on the mouse. Yet another creative option that is being used is the placement of what the researchers call “mouse houses”. These are made from PVC and other components that can be purchased inexpensively at any home improvement store.

The purpose of these mouse houses is to create places where mice will live. When a mouse occupies these houses, during the course of routine preening, often times the ticks will fall off and down through a grate and into a collection trap at the bottom. Ticks will also spontaneously fall off when they are done collecting a blood meal on a mouse. This allows researchers to passively collect ticks that simply fall off the mice.

The data that Tsao and her colleagues have collected show there is an increased risk for Lyme disease across the majority of counties in Michigan. Here in southeast Michigan - Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Washtenaw, and St Clair counties all have a meaningful Lyme disease risk.

How to remove a tick

Anecdotally it seems more people are reporting that either they or their pets have been found with ticks attached. That leads to the logical question of what someone should do. If you find a tick attached to your skin you should remove it as quickly as possible.

The simplest method is to grab the tick as close to the skin as possible with fine-tipped tweezers and pull it straight out.

Do not squeeze the body since this will not only destroy the tick but also potentially leave the mouth parts embedded in your skin.

Once the tick is removed, the skin can be cleaned and treated just as any other small cut would. You should not throw the tick away or smash it. There are resources available online to help you identify the tick and even how engorged it is. That is important because if it turns out to be a black-legged tick and it has not been attached for more than 24 hours, your risk of getting Lyme disease is essentially zero.

Tsao also recommends the use of a smartphone app called “The Tick App”. She helped develop it in order to collect data on tick exposures but also provide helpful information to the users of the app. It even offers a way to get the tick identified by an expert. If you find a tick and are able to photograph it the image can be uploaded through the app. Someone with experience will look at it and reply within 24 hours with the type of tick it is and even potentially give you an estimate of how long it had been attached based on its size and level of engorgement.

This is important information because the most common tick in Michigan, the American dog tick, has a very low risk of transmitting any disease. The American dog tick does not carry Lyme disease at all. It can transmit rocky mountain spotted fever but in Michigan, those are very rare cases. Knowing exactly what kind of tick it was can help you and your doctor make better-informed decisions on the need for antibiotics.

Click here to download the Tick App.


About the Author:

Dr. McGeorge can be seen on Local 4 News helping Metro Detroiters with health concerns when he isn't helping save lives in the emergency room at Henry Ford Hospital.