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Tick Tick Tick: What a Plucky Band of Parasite Hunters Found in SC’s Woods

 Dr. Melissa Nolan
Scott Morgan
South Carolina Public Radio
Dr. Melissa Nolan and her crew of student tick hunters found thousands (and thousands) of ticks all over South Carolina last year. It was the first real effort in the state to catalog which species are here and which we need to be most concerned about.

When you think of tick-borne diseases, what’s the first that comes to mind?

Lyme, right? Well, the good news, says Dr. Melissa Nolan, an epidemiology professor at the University of South Carolina, is that “the risk of Lyme disease is still probably pretty low” in the Palmetto State.

She will keep an eye on the tick that carries it as it continues heading south, but for the most part, Nolan says any incidents of Lyme among South Carolinians are probably going to be from bites received in another state.

And were that the only conclusion from Nolan’s almost-yearlong study into which species of ticks, invasive or not, make South Carolina their home, it would be pretty good news. But Nolan and her team of student tick hunters, armed with connections at pet shelters to alert them if animals come in with ticks on their bodies and some white cloth and dry ice for dragging the grounds and woods of state parks, found at least eight species of tick in the state.

That includes a nasty little variety that she suspected was here but hoped would not be – H. longicornis. It has a few nicknames: Asian longhorn tick; cattle tick.

That latter nickname is given because of its taste for bovine. But what makes H. longicornis so unwelcome is that A) it lives in nests, B) its females can reproduce as much as they want asexually, and C) it can swarm and bleed whole animals dry.

Kyndall Braumuller, a graduate research assistant working with Nolan, cites a report out of North Carolina about five cattle killed by H. longicornis infestation. The animals died of exsanguination and anemia.

Nolan and crew were the first to find H. longicornis in South Carolina – two individuals, one in Lancaster County and one in Pickens County. Both counties border North Carolina, which used to be the cattle tick’s most southern range.

Worryingly for pet owners, the two samples of H. longicornis (now in the hands of the CDC, Nolan says) were found on dogs brought into shelters.

So there is cause to be concerned, but no need to panic quite yet about H. longicornis. There are not many known to be here, but Nolan says they’re worth keeping tabs on.

More common are lone star ticks, which are usually associated with diseases like STARI (Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness, which is not Lyme, but has very similar symptoms) and, worse, ehrlichiosis – a potentially fatal disease that can cause organ failure, nervous system damage, and other dangerous symptoms if left untreated.

A lesser-known, but potentially problematic side effect of a lone star tick bite is alfa-gal syndrome. That’s an allergy to red meat wrought by a kind of sugar transmitted through a tick bite. Braumuller says it’s not always an annoying kind of allergy either. It can be severe enough to trigger fatal anaphylaxis.

The thing about all of this, says Nolan, is not that tick-borne diseases are automatically untreatable, it’s that they’re often misdiagnosed. She’s read studies showing that ehrlichiosis may only be properly diagnosed 20 percent of the time.

Even Lyme, according to Harvard University, is likely misdiagnosed several times more often than it should be – and that’s the tick-borne illness that people (including doctors) tend to be more familiar with.

There are other tick-borne illnesses to worry about too. Nolan says she’s keeping a close watch on the spotted fever family of illnesses (also carried by the lone star tick). While some in this family are more a nuisance than a threat, Nolan says Rocky Mountain spotted fever is no joke.

Rocky Mountain spotted fever, according to the CDC, usually brings a headache and rash, but if left untreated, it is among the deadliest tick-borne illnesses[SM1] [SM2] , with symptoms related to ehrlichiosis.

And even if a tick-borne illness is properly diagnosed and treated with medication, Nolan says these medications have gone from $2 to more than $1,000.

Counterintuitive as it might sound, none of this information is meant to scare you. Nolan’s study is the first in the state to really categorize the tick landscape here, and it’s meant to arm infectious disease experts with a real picture of what we face – that way, doctors might less often misdiagnose vector-borne illnesses.

It’s also meant to let you, fair reader, know that there are tiny (really, really tiny) critters out there in parks and fields (and possibly yards) that can make you, your family, and your pets extremely ill, but also that you can take steps to protect against tick-borne illnesses.

Nolan says the best defense, especially when veering off the path at parks, is to spray DEET or permethrin on your clothes (but not on small children). There is also picaridin, IR3535, Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD), or 2-undecanone to help keep ticks at bay.

For your pets, make sure they have something like Frontline or Bravecto in their systems – especially in peak summer seasons, but definitely most of the non-freezing year.

Further tips for defending against ticks are available at the CDC’s website.

This story is a follow-up to a story aired in March of 2020. To hear and read that story, click here.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.