North Carolina

Ticks, sharks, snakes, fire and rip currents: Are you safe from summer hazards?

Are we safe? Help us find out in our new year-long project

News & Observer and Herald-Sun reporters will launch a project called Are We Safe? It will look at worries, risk, safety of North Carolina residents and holding leaders and laws accountable for keeping our communities safe.
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News & Observer and Herald-Sun reporters will launch a project called Are We Safe? It will look at worries, risk, safety of North Carolina residents and holding leaders and laws accountable for keeping our communities safe.

Does the thought of a tick burrowing into your skin keep you out of the woods? How likely are you to bump into a shark off the North Carolina coast? Do you know how to be safe this summer while still having fun?

As part of the ongoing News & Observer series, “Are We Safe?” a panel of experts convened June 26 at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences to talk about summer hazards — and revealed some facts that might surprise you.

A copperhead watches visitors from it’s habitat at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. Chuck Liddy News & Observer file photo

How scary are snakes?

A recent poll conducted for The News & Observer by Elon University showed that 29% of respondents feel “very unsafe” around snakes. But in reality the number of people killed annually in the U.S. by venomous snakes is quite low — only five, said Jeff Mette, curator of the Living Collections at the Museum of Natural Sciences.

“Here in the Triangle region, the snake is a shy animal,” said Mette. People probably pass by them every day, but don’t see them because they are so well camouflaged.

“If you only really know one snake in the Triangle, make it a copperhead” because it’s venemous and common, said Mette.

To identify them, look for darker bands that are thinner across their backs than on the sides. They also have short, fat, bodies with big heads.

To avoid snake bites, pay attention to where your hands are going when gardening or picking things up in the brush. Wear protective footwear, and use a flashlight when roaming the woods in the dark. If bit by a venomous snake, get to a hospital. Don’t try to suck the venom out, apply a tourniquet, or any other DIY venom removal method.

The Carolina Reptile Conservation and Rescue center shows how killing snakes can destroy the ecosystem.

The facts on house fires

Kelly Ransdall, the regional education specialist for the National Fire Protection Association, said far more people die from house fires than snake bites: about 3,000 per year.

Ransdall stressed that installing home sprinkler systems and practicing fire drills could make a big difference in preventing deaths.

“Because of changes to modern homes, you now have only one or two minutes to get out of the house after the fire alarm goes off,” Ransdall said. Home sprinkler systems offer more time to escape the house, and could keep firefighters from dousing your home with thousands of gallons of water.

With the Fourth of July approaching, Ransdall advised not setting off your own firecrackers, even the ones labeled “safe and sane” in North Carolina. They can still cause injuries, she said.

“Leave fireworks to the professionals,” she said.

Do you know the proper way to remove a tick that’s attached to your body? Despite what you may have been told when you were younger, smothering or burning ticks is not a good idea. The correct removal method is even easier.

How to avoid ticks

Six ticks species in North Carolina are now considered hazardous to human health, after the news that the Asian longhorned tick has made its way to the Carolinas. Marcia E. Herman-Giddens, adjunct professor at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill, discussed some of the diseases spread by ticks, including a few that are fatal.

The most common ticks to bite humans. CDC

Ticks inject their victims with a bit of saliva as they feed. That saliva can carry bacteria like rickettsia or Lyme disease, which cause fever, body aches and rashes. Untreated, Lyme disease can linger painfully in joints, or attack the heart and nervous system.

To avoid these diseases, stay away from overgrown brushy or grassy areas where ticks like to wait for passers-by. They like to burrow into dark crevices, so make easier to spot them by wearing light clothing and tucking pants legs into socks, and shirts into pants.

Bug repellent, such as sprays containing at least 30% DEET, can keep ticks at bay. Dipping clothes in a permethrin solution, or putting them into a dryer on high heat, can kill them.

Herman-Giddens suggests checking often for ticks, removing them with extra-sharp tweezers and seeing a healthcare provider if flu-like symptoms develop within 30 days of the bite. Take the risks of ticks seriously, but there’s no need to panic, Herman-Giddens said. Most ticks don’t carry diseases, she said.

“Odds are when you get bit you’ll be fine,” she said.

This video presents the story of John, who got Lyme disease from a tick bite, while on a camping trip with his son. John talks about his early symptoms and his diagnosis by his physician, Dr. Heaton. Dr. Heaton discusses some common concerns that

In this Aug. 11, 2016, photo, a great white shark swims past researchers as they chum the ocean looking for sharks in the waters off Gansbaai, South Africa. Extensive research by shark expert Michael Rutzen and his marine biologist partner Sara Andreotti has found that great whites off the South African coast are rapidly heading for extinction. (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam) Schalk van Zuydam AP

Staying safe in the ocean

UNC Marine Sciences doctoral student Jeff Plumlee loves sharks and shared tips on how to avoid the 20 or so shark species that inhabit North Carolina coastal waters.

Sharks don’t really want to eat humans, he noted, and there typically are only two or three shark attacks per year in North Carolina. But this summer, the three reported bites in North Carolina are ahead of that average, The News & Observer previously reported.

Since sharks tend to hang out near drop-offs and around sand bars, those areas can put people more at risk of encounters. Staying around others and near lifeguards can help keep people safer.

Another pro tip: Don’t look like a fish. Shiny jewelry flashing in the water can look like fish scales to a hungry shark. They are also attracted to contrasting colors, so avoid brightly colored bathing suits. Loud splashing also can pique a shark’s interest.

Common sense rules can help keep swimmers safe. Don’t hang around baitfish or enter the water when bleeding. Shark senses are keen, and they can smell blood from far away. And don’t harass sharks, push them or try to pull them out of the water.

“That’s good practice from squirrels to sharks,” Plumlee said.

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Speaker John Merical shared the story about his 17-year-old daughter Paige, who got caught in a rip current off the coast of Emerald Isle on April 19, and later died.

John Merical assumed that his daughter, whom he described as an excellent swimmer, would have known what to do in a rip current. His search for answers about her death led him to endorse a tactic called “go with the flow.” Since fighting the current can exhaust a swimmer, he recommends relaxing and floating with the current instead.

The North Carolina Sea Grant suggests avoiding rip currents by watching for choppy water or a break in waves. Remain close to the shore and lifeguards. However, the organization recommends swimming at an angle to the current to break out of it. If that’s not possible, calmly float until the current weakens, swim at an angle to the current to escape it, and swim back to shore.


Rip currents are powerful, narrow channels of fast-moving water that are prevalent along the East, Gulf, and West coasts of the U.S. Moving at speeds of up to eight feet per second, rip currents can move faster than an Olympic swimmer. Lifeguards

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Jennifer DeMoss is a science intern at The News & Observer through a fellowship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Jennifer, an anthropologist with training in forest ecology and botany, is looking forward to covering the latest research in the North Carolina area.