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Be Vigilant in Preventing Tick-borne Illness this Spring

Image of Be Vigilant in Preventing Tick-borne Illness this Spring. The blacklegged tick, also called the deer tick, can carry the agents of Lyme disease, babesiosis, and more. It is more common in the Northeast and upper Midwest parts of the U.S. but is present across most of the Eastern U.S. Individuals who remove attached ticks promptly can help prevent tick-borne disease. The lone star tick is the most common tick found in the Southeastern U.S. Public health professionals say that one of the most important things people can do to prevent a tick bite is to recognize tick habitats and conduct tick checks after being outside. (DHA/Public Health graphic: Ethel Kefauver)

As the spring season approaches, and people are emerging from the warm shelter of their homes to enjoy the great outdoors, Department of Defense public health officials are advising service members and their families to beware of another creature that emerges during spring.

“When the weather warms, ticks begin to surface and incidences of tick bites significantly increase,” said Robyn Nadolny, who holds a doctorate in ecological sciences, and serves as chief of the vector-borne disease branch at Defense Health Agency Public Health.

Nadolny is one of several public health professionals who are warning individuals to be vigilant in preventing tick-borne illness.
Fortunately, tick bites are preventable—so there are a few things individuals can do to protect themselves from tick-borne illnesses this spring.

For service members, it is important that they wear their uniforms when working outdoors.

“DOD uniforms are factory-treated with permethrin—a chemical that repels ticks before the first service member ever puts it on,” said Nadolny. “Just putting on your uniform is one step you can take to prevent tick-borne disease.”

Additionally, there is the MilTICK program—a special service available for members of the DOD community including service members, their families, retirees, and DOD civilians.

“Through this program, DOD beneficiaries can mail in a tick that was removed from a person for identification, analysis, and testing to ensure the tick was not infected with any disease-causing agents,” said Nadolny. “We are providing a tool in the public health toolbox to get DOD beneficiaries accurately diagnosed and treated.”

When the ticks arrive at the vector-borne disease laboratory at DHA-PH, they are tested for many pathogens that cause human illnesses including Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and related spotted fevers, ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis, babesiosis, and Powassan virus, said Nadolny.

One of the benefits of MilTICK is that that results also serve as surveillance data, allowing DHA-PH scientists to keep tabs on how tick-borne disease risks are changing. One tick-borne illness has begun to increase in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States.

Human babesiosis, a potentially fatal illness, is often detected in the Northeastern and upper Midwestern United States. Babesiosis is caused by infection with Babesia microti, a tick-borne protozoan parasite. The illness is often diagnosed in conjunction with Lyme disease because the blacklegged ticks that carry both pathogens are frequently co-infected with both the bacteria that causes Lyme and the parasite that causes babesiosis.

Representatives from DHA-PH are working with collaborators from state and academic agencies throughout Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia to compile human case data and tick surveillance data on the rise of babesiosis in the mid-Atlantic.

“These data reveal the alarming trend that ticks are increasingly infected with Babesia microti in this region, especially along the Eastern Shore and in the Eastern parts of these states,” said Nadolny.

She said she is working with other public health experts on publishing a paper soon on this emerging public health issue.

“The goal of our paper is to share these data and educate health care providers and the general public about this emerging public health issue, which many clinicians might be unaware of,” said Nadolny. “Because babesiosis is caused by a parasite, it cannot be treated by the same antibiotics that are routinely prescribed for tick-borne infections. A delay in treatment can cause more severe symptoms or even death.”

Although the start of tick season can be alarming, public health professionals say there are many ways to be outside and still be tick-safe.
“Be sure to wear long pants; tucking them into your socks is one tried-and-true technique to prevent tick bites,” said Nadolny. “Treating clothes, socks and boots with permethrin is another way to kill ticks that make their way onto your clothes.”

She says checking yourself for ticks and removing ticks promptly is the best way to prevent tick-borne illness.

“The simplest and most effective thing you can do is conduct a tick check after spending time in tick habitats—anywhere there’s brush, tall grass, or leaf litter,” said Nadolny. “Treat your pets for ticks, too! And if you’re concerned, reach out to the MilTICK staff, and we can help you find the resources you need.”

For more information on MilTICK visit: MilTICK – DHA-Public Health

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Last Updated: April 11, 2024
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