Experts anticipate an increase in Lyme disease and other tick-borne infections as weather warms up
It’s fairly common for people to refer to weather patterns to provide reasoning for heightened insect populations for the warmer months. And, while the relatively mild winter of 2016-17 did allow for adult ticks to remain more active, this year it’s an abundance of acorns, rather than weather, that is to blame for the predicted surge in the number of Lyme disease-carrying ticks.
“Milder winters bring higher mouse populations, which also drives up the tick population,” Catseye Pest Control pest specialist Paul Dube said. “As the mouse population grows in a residential area, the more mice are likely to enter structures and bring in ticks.”
This year’s predicted Lyme explosion actually includes multiple factors: a swell in the local deer population that feed and spread ticks, as well as the bumper crop of acorns in the Northeast, have allowed for a plentiful amount of food to be stored over the winter. This resulted in the white-footed mouse population to skyrocket.
In addition to the increased white-footed mouse population, the deer tick — also commonly called the black-legged tick — has started to present itself far beyond its typical reach. Deer ticks are now found in nearly half of all counties in the United States, whereas 20 years ago, they were only present in about 30 percent of those counties. Deer ticks remain especially obtrusive in deeply wooded areas east of the Mississippi River, including Upstate New York and throughout Massachusetts and the rest of New England.
Lyme Disease and How it Spreads
The deer tick is the most commonly found and infected tick in the Northeast United States. These ticks will feed on or attach themselves to any mammal they can find, and that’s when a tick bite happens. These ticks are often found on deer — explaining the name “deer tick” — and the deer typically transport the ticks from heavily wooded areas to populated parks and private residences.
Ticks can acquire the bacteria that cause Lyme and other diseases from other animals but most ticks are infected by mice, as they carry the host bacteria borrelia burgdorferi. The ticks then can spread Lyme via biting.
“The more mice that are available for ticks to get a blood meal from, the more likely they are to complete their developmental stages and then produce eggs to add to the tick problem,” Dube said. “Ticks can't go through each life stage without a blood meal. Deer and other wildlife also play a role in this but mice can produce high number more quickly than other wildlife."
Deer tick nymphs, which are ticks in the middle stage of their life, are roughly the size of a poppy seed; they cling to grass and plants and attach themselves to people as they walk by. The ticks then burrow in hard-to-see places, like behind the ears and in the armpits and groin area. And if they’re infected, this is typically when the ticks bite and transmit the disease to a human host.
An estimated 300,000 Americans are diagnosed with Lyme disease each year. The number of confirmed and reported Lyme disease cases has more than doubled since 2001. In order for the Lyme bacteria to be transmitted to a human, the tick must be attached to the body for 24 to 36 hours.
Tick Removal, Bite Symptoms, & Treatment
If you do find a tick, remove it as soon as possible. The longer an infected tick stays on your skin, the greater the chance it will pass the Lyme bacteria on to you.
Symptoms of Lyme disease usually appear several days to two weeks after a tick bite. A large, red “bullseye” rash may accompany fever, muscle, and joint aches. If detected early, Lyme disease can be successfully treated with antibiotics.
However, if left untreated, it can lead to serious heart and neurological problems. Additionally, other long-term side effects include chronic stomach issues, memory loss, stiffness in joints, and persisting headaches.
“Other diseases transmitted from ticks in our area are Borrelia miyamotoi, which has similar symptoms to Lyme but with no visible warnings of a rash like Lyme disease gives,” Dube said. “Powassan Virus is rare but has been documented in the Northeast. About 10 percent of all Powassan cases are fatal and many people who do survive have chronic neurological effects.”
Credit: Map: CDC. Annotation: Katie Park/NPR
How to Avoid Ticks
Wear light-colored long sleeves and pants when outdoors, especially in heavily wooded areas for long periods of time.
Ticks are more likely to reside in tall grass and wooded areas inhabited by large animals. When hiking through the woods, remember to walk in the center of trails to avoid ticks.
Use repellents with DEET on exposed clothing and skin when outdoors.
Use preventative tick medications on pets (after you consult your veterinarian).
Fully inspect clothing and your body once you come indoors (using a sticky lint roller is a great way to check clothing before coming indoors).
Dry your clothes before washing them — washing alone won’t kill ticks because they don’t drown.
If you live in a Lyme state, get into the habit of checking yourself every day for ticks.
Ticks like to hide in places such as behind the ears, on the scalp, and in the armpits and groin.
Keep the grass on your property cut low.
Remove woodpiles and access weeds from your yard.
If you find a tick on your body, use tweezers and squeeze it by the head, not the body, to remove it. Use a slow, steady pull so as not to break off the mouthparts and leave them in the skin. Then, wash hands and the tick bite site thoroughly with soap and water. And remember, just because you found a tick doesn’t mean you suffered an infected tick bite.
Removed ticks should be flushed down a toilet or sealed in a ziplock bag before being disposed of in the garbage.
If you suspect you’ve been bitten by a tick, seek medical attention as soon as possible.
To learn more about ticks and other lawn pests, visit our Pest Library. And, as always, feel free to reach out to our team of experienced professionals if you have any further questions or think you need assistance getting rid of ticks on your property.