Found primarily in the Southeast and the eastern U.S., the lone star tick vectors Ehrlichia chaffeensis and Ehrlichia ewingii, which when transmitted to human hosts can cause tularemia and STARI (southern tick-associated rash illness).

The sun is shining, the flowers are blooming and your crew has plenty of work to keep them busy and the cash register ringing. And while this column normally addresses what needs to be done to protect the health of all those luscious plants you grow, select and install, this time around we’ll talk about keeping your crew, and yourself, healthy. Because if you don’t take care of you, who’ll take care of the flora?

There are hazards inherent in any kind of outdoor work, and let’s assume your company has a comprehensive, on-going safety program. Crews know how to handle everything from chemicals to skid steers; they wear protective clothing and sunscreen. Good start. But what about bugs?

Each year, tick-borne diseases affect thousands of folks who work and play in the great outdoors, and the incidence of reported cases has been growing steadily. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta, there were slightly over 11,000 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in 1995; in 2009, there were nearly 30,000 confirmed and almost 40,000 probable cases reported. And that’s just the data for Lyme. Ticks can transmit the pathogens responsible for causing tularemia, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, anaplasmosis and erlichiosis, among others – each of which can cause physical misery for the individual and loss of productivity for the team.

What to watch for

The most common symptoms of tick-borne illness are aches and pains and/or a rash, which makes it difficult to recognize, much less to diagnose. After a long day of trimming, watering, lifting pots, digging – any of the everyday tasks performed in the nursery or on an installation – aches and pains are not surprising. Headache, fatigue, muscle and joint ache may simply describe a hard day’s work. They may also indicate the start of a serious infection.

The American dog tick is the most commonly identified species responsible for transmitting the pathogen that causes Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Its range covers much of the country east of the Rockies and in limited areas along the Pacific Coast.

A rash signals a more unusual reaction, and one shaped like a bull’s eye is a tell-tale sign of Lyme or STARI (southern tick-associated rash illness). This may appear anywhere from three to 30 days following a bite in the case of Lyme, and it’s usually evident prior to the onset of fever. Nearly 80 percent of Lyme patients display this rash, which develops at the sight of the tick bite and radiates outward.

The rash that indicates Rocky Mountain spotted fever can differ from person to person, not only in its appearance, but in its location and time of onset. Most often, the rash begins shortly after the onset of fever (two to five days on average), and appears as a mass of small, flat, pink spots on the extremities – wrists, forearms, and ankles – where ticks are likely to bite. The rash then spreads to the trunk, however, and it sometimes reaches the palms and soles. The pink spots may turn reddish purple, which can develop a week or so after the onset of symptoms.

If symptoms of a tick-borne infection are not recognized, or if they go untreated, the results can be debilitating. Be vigilant.

What to do

Most tick-borne infections can be treated at home with antibiotics, but the trick to arresting the progression of disease is to catch it early. Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and the others can be extremely difficult to diagnose; symptoms can appear days or weeks after a tick bite. So even if you’ve found and successfully removed a tick, that achy feeling may not develop until long after you’ve forgotten about the ugly little bugger.

First, learn about the culprit. Most ticks go through four life stages: egg, six-legged larva, eight-legged nymph and adult. The egg is the only stage at which they won’t bite. After hatching, though, ticks must eat blood at every stage to survive, and they’re more likely to attach to a human source in their nymph and adult stages.

Spotting them before they spot you is nearly impossible; sizes of various species range from practically invisible to nearly a quarter inch long. So it’s easier to be aware of their environment – in a word, plants. Not easy to avoid in this business.

Ticks find their victims, or “hosts,” by detecting breath, body odors, body heat, moisture and vibrations. Thus they can identify popular paths and gathering areas, where they’ll wait on the tips of grasses and shrubs for an innocent passerby. If a host happens to contact the leaf tip where a tick is resting, the pest can grab on with its forelegs and go along for the ride. It then may attach immediately or search for a more convenient spot to burrow where the skin is easily accessible and thin enough to pierce; often the host doesn’t feel a thing or ignores a tiny pinch.

Wear protective clothing. Gloves, long sleeves, long pants – even pant legs tucked into socks or boot tops – may help deter the tick. If it cannot find skin and attach itself, it’ll look elsewhere for a meal. And check for ticks after work. Pay particular attention to hat bands and behind the ears; cuffs, wrist bands, collars and necklines; and hair.

Should you find a tick, it’s likely that it’s already attached itself and has started to feed. Removing it is critical, but the way you remove it is important, too. There are hundreds of folk-remedy suggestions for this, such as trying to “suffocate” the tick by coating it with Vaseline and hoping it will detach itself, or burning it off with a match. But the CDC recommends a simple, three-step procedure.

First, avoid using your bare hands. Wear latex gloves, if possible, or protect them with a paper towel. Use fine-tipped tweezers.

Second, firmly grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible and very steadily pull upward. It’s important not to twist, rock or jerk the critter, as you may detach its mouth parts – which may then lodge in your skin. If they do happen to break off, try to remove them with the tweezers; if you cannot, let the skin heal.

Last, disinfect, disinfect, disinfect. Cleanse the wound and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine solution or plain soap and water.

Chances are you may not be infected, and even if you are, you may never develop symptoms. But err on the safe side, and watch for aches and pains, fever and rash. Consult your doctor at the first sign.

June and July are the peak months for exposure to ticks, but as long as you’re outside and working among plants – where ticks love to lurk – it’s a good idea to take preventive measures and avoid the risk of exposure.