Spring is finally here and, if you’ve been cooped up all winter, you’re probably itching to get outside and enjoy the great outdoors. But be careful, because this year’s tick season could be the worst ever. And with cases of Lyme disease spreading throughout the country, it’s more important than ever to avoid getting bitten.
More Mice Means More Ticks
Milder winters in many areas of the country have led to bumper crops of acorns, allowing rodent populations to increase. Because mice, chipmunks, and other small mammals are the primary hosts for both the bacterium that causes Lyme disease and for ticks, the increase in rodent populations leads to an increased tick population, and an increased number of ticks able to spread Lyme disease.
Dangers of Lyme Disease
Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium that infects people who are bitten by a tick that carries the bacterium. Normally a tick must remain attached for at least 24 hours, and perhaps as long as 36 to 48 hours, in order to pass on the bacterium. Only about 1% of confirmed tick bites are estimated to pass on the bacterium that causes Lyme disease, but the number of estimated cases of Lyme disease in the United States ranges from 30,000 to 300,000 each year.
Ticks secrete a substance that keeps their hosts from feeling the bite, so the first symptoms may be a rash such as the typical “bullseye” rash that develops after a few days, although anywhere from 25 to 50% of people bitten by ticks do not display a rash. Symptoms of Lyme disease mimic those of many other ailments, making Lyme disease a difficult affliction to diagnose. Those symptoms include fever, headache, swelling of muscles and joints, and very strong feelings of fatigue. If left untreated for too long, Lyme disease can result in permanent joint pain, neurological disorders, and chronic persistent symptoms of the disease.
New Tick-Borne Virus Spreading
As if Lyme disease weren’t bad enough, a tick-borne virus is spreading too. The Powassan virus is also spread to human beings through ticks, and it is transmitted to humans much more quickly than the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. If undiagnosed, symptoms lead eventually to inflammation of the brain, with about half of survivors suffering permanent symptoms that affect the brain. There are no medications or vaccines available to treat Powassan virus, and it is estimated that 10 to 15 percent of all cases are fatal. Symptoms of the initial infection include fever, headache, nausea, and weakness.
How to Prevent Tick-Borne Diseases
Prevention is the best means to avoid tick-borne diseases. Ticks, unlike fleas, cannot jump. They typically crawl to the top of a tall blade of grass or other vegetation and hope for an animal or person to brush by so they can latch on and feed. Avoiding areas with tall grass and sticking to well-marked trails is a first line of prevention.
When hiking through areas where ticks may live, wearing long pants, tall socks, and long-sleeved shirts can help prevent ticks from getting close to the skin to bite you. Insect repellents containing DEET can also be effective in warding off ticks. Periodically checking your clothing, skin, and hair for ticks can help find them before they get a chance to bite you.
Since it can take up to two hours for a tick to implant, finding ticks early is crucial. If a tick has implanted itself, the safest means of removal is to remove the tick with tweezers. Use fine-tipped tweezers and grasp the tick as close to the surface of the skin as possible. Pull upward with steady pressure, being careful not to squeeze the tick. Ticks can then be killed by submerging them in alcohol or sealing them in a plastic bag to be saved for identification in the event that you develop an illness. Monitor the bite area, and if you notice a rash or other symptoms be sure to contact a doctor.
Don’t forget to check your pets for ticks either. Ticks can cause Lyme disease in dogs and, less frequently, in cats. If your pets go outside on a regular basis, it would be a good idea to check them for ticks when they come inside, as those ticks can be a vector for Lyme disease in the household.
Tick-borne diseases are not something that anyone wants to deal with, but awareness of the dangers of ticks and knowledge of how to avoid them goes a long way to ensuring that you won’t contract Lyme disease. As long as you take steps to protect you and your loved ones, you should be able to weather this tick season and enjoy the outdoors safely.