This summer has seen an uptick in ticks and tick infections. Is this normal? Or, a “new normal”? When weather is warmer and spring starts earlier, people are outside more often, allowing for more “human-tick” encounters to occur. But what about the ticks themselves? If there’s a milder or a wetter winter, that’s ideal for ticks, as they can survive the winter and allow for pathogens – like those that cause Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever – to spread. Mouse and deer populations are primarily responsible for moving ticks around. As these populations change or decline due to predator control and climate change, that means more ticks are around in the grasses and bushes. That means more chances for human-tick encounters. Changing climate patterns are leading to shorter winters and warmer days overall. Thus, tick seasons are likely to get more severe as climate change increases tick populations, distribution and range. More ticks and tick infections WILL be a new normal.
If you spend time outdoors in grassy or woody areas, always check your clothes, backpack, and skin for any lingering ticks. If you have pets, check them as well. Using “EPA-registered” repellants (see link in comments) can help keep the ticks away. Treating clothes with permethrin, an insecticide, has been found to help, too. When you can, wear long sleeves and pants: the less exposed skin, the better. This is tricky in hot summer conditions, but lighter colors help (they reflect the sun’s radiation, keeping you cooler) and they make ticks easier to spot.
More than 14% of the world’s population probably has, or has had, tick-borne Lyme disease. This is an infection that can cause long and debilitating symptoms, with early signs including fever, headache and a circular rash resembling a bull’s-eye. Later symptoms include joint pain and inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, first identified in the Rockies, but now more commonly found in the southeastern US, can cause serious damage to organs and may even prove fatal. In some good news, Pfizer and Valneva (a biotech company) are in the final testing phase of a new vaccine against one of the diseases – Lyme disease – with thousands of volunteers in the US and Europe. If successful, official authorization will be sought by 2025. If caught early enough right now, the disease can be treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics can also treat Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, if caught early enough.
There are many species of ticks, including the “lone star tick”, mainly located in the southeastern and eastern US. This species can spread multiple diseases and can even lead to something strange called alpha-gal syndrome – an allergy to red meat that people develop after being bit. See link in the comments for a guide to the various species of ticks and their distribution, range, and diseases spread. If able, when bit, capture the tick (use tweezers and don’t crush it, to reduce spreading more potential pathogens) to bring it to the doctor’s office, in order to get it analyzed in a lab.