Forget staying 6 feet apart: Ticks go for blood in the hardest-to-reach places on the human body.
And the area where Lyme disease is found is expanding.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there’s now a high incidence of exposure in Midwestern, Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states.
The tick population is likely to fluctuate throughout the season anyway, said Mather, who is a professor in the department of plant sciences and entomology at the University of Rhode Island. “What we see in real time isn’t always a good prognosticator for what could be happening a month or two months from now.”
By April and May, reports were closer to what Mather saw in 2019. But even if tick numbers hold steady for the rest of the warm-weather months, encounters with the tiny arachnids will remain a serious issue.
Not only can ticks carry Lyme disease, they may bring other illnesses as well. When left untreated, some of these can be deadly for both humans and pets.
And as sunny days send people outside to breath fresh air amid the pandemic, the risk of contracting a tick-borne disease or infection goes up wherever ticks can be found. Here’s what you need to know about staying tick-safe this year.
What are the most serious tick-borne illnesses?
Worrying about the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t mean other threats have gone away.
As with Lyme disease, early symptoms of anaplasmosis include fevers, chills, headaches and muscle aches. Antibiotics are effective against anaplasmosis, but if left untreated, the disease can be fatal. Those with compromised immune systems are at especially high risk.
In Europe, the viral tick-borne encephalitis is a problem, with 3,092 confirmed cases in European Union countries in 2018. There is an effective vaccine against the disease, which can cause fevers, headaches, paralysis and convulsions. (Other tick borne-diseases in Europe include tick-borne relapsing fever, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever and Mediterranean spotted fever.)
The most common tick-borne danger in both the United States and Europe, however, is still from Lyme disease. And the vast majority of cases may go undetected.
Early symptoms of Lyme disease include fever, chills, headache, muscle aches and a distinctive bull’s-eye rash that expands from the bite itself. (Though a rash is a well-known sign of the infection, it occurs in 70% to 80% of cases.)
If left untreated, Lyme-disease symptoms can eventually worsen to include facial palsy, heart palpitations and severe joint pain.
Stay tick-safe in the outdoors
Gardner, the University of Maine medical entomologist, spends her days in the field dragging a light-colored cloth through tick habitats. The ticks grab onto the fabric, where their dark bodies show up clearly.
That’s a research trick you can adapt to protect yourself. “Light-colored clothing can make it easier to spot the ticks on you,” said Gardner, whose work puts her in frequent close contact with the tiny creatures.
Other ways to protect against ticks include tucking pants into socks. Since ticks crawl up from the ground, this makes it easier to spot them before they slip beneath your clothes.
“Removing these invasive plants in the landscape have the additional benefit of inhibiting exposure to tick-borne pathogens,” Gardner said.
Looking for ticks — and what to do if you find one
Even if you’re practicing scrupulous tick safety when outside, it’s essential to inspect yourself and your kids for ticks when you come back in.
That means a full-body check: Partner with someone who can inspect every corner of your body, or use a handheld mirror to peer into hard-to-see places. Some places where ticks are easy to miss include your ears, inside your belly button, underneath the arms and on the backs of your knees.
If you develop a rash or fever within a few weeks of finding a tick, contact your health care provider.
In areas with a high incidence of Lyme disease, it’s a good idea to check in anyway; depending on how long the tick has been attached or embedded, the provider may recommend further treatment or monitoring.
What about your pets?
There are two considerations when it comes to pets and tick safety: keeping them safe, and ensuring you’re not exposed to ticks that they bring into the home.
Some of these diseases can be fatal.
Cats do not appear to be susceptible to Lyme disease. In the southern United States, however, they can catch the tick-borne Cytauxzoon felis, a parasitic disease that is often fatal. To protect your cat and your household, it’s important to use a tick-preventative treatment if the animal spends time outdoors.
It’s a habit that will protect your pet, while also preventing the arachnids from attaching to a vulnerable human food source: You.