Tick Season: What You Don’t Know

You may have heard that tick season starts early this year. In some areas, winter didn't bring an end to the season, but not all ticks are a reason to worry about Lyme disease, an expert says.

Warming temperatures and sunlight make us spend more time outside, increasing exposure to ticks. The small parasites that live in tall grasses can spread germs, causing multiple diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Lyme disease, and babesiosis.

Professor Thomas Mather, a director of the Center for Vector-Borne Disease and its TickEncounter Resource Center at the University of Rhode Island, explains that ticks can be active throughout the year depending on their type and the stage they are at — egg, larva, nymph, and adult.


"In the United States, the activity of ticks, regardless of their type, starts increasing in March. April, May, and June may be the most active months for ticks because the adults are waning, but the nymphs are starting to come on," Mather tells Healthnews.

Nymphal ticks are highly risky because they are small in size — comparable to a poppy seed — which makes them difficult to spot. In the Eastern part of the United States, about 20% of infections with Lyme disease germs are passed by nymphs.

Geography matters, too. In most of California, winters are warm enough for black-legged ticks that cause Lyme disease to be active. However, when it gets dry and warm by May, their activity decreases as some of them die, Mather says.

What do I do after a tick bite?

Adult ticks, about the size of an apple seed, are easier to spot and should be removed as soon as possible because it takes at least 24-36 hours for an attached tick to infect you with Lyme disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends using clean, fine-tipped tweezers and pulling the tick upward with steady, even pressure.

You should see your doctor if you develop a rash that looks like a bull eye or fever within several weeks of removing the tick. If untreated, Lyme disease may progress to rheumatologic, cardiac, and neurologic conditions.

The Infectious Disease Society of America guidelines recommend taking 200 mg of doxycycline for disease prophylaxis within 72 hours of black-legged tick removal. Mather says he takes the medicine himself after a bite.

"About half of the adult stage black-legged ticks in the northern part of the Eastern United States carry Lyme disease germ. So there's a pretty good chance they could have been infected," he adds.


Should I get tested for Lyme disease?

Most Lyme disease tests are designed to detect antibodies produced by the body in response to infection. Antibodies can persist in the blood for months or even years after the infection is gone.

Mather says people are often tested for Lyme disease too soon because it takes about three weeks for the body to create antibodies.

However, testing for Lyme disease and antibiotics is sometimes unnecessary, as different ticks spread different diseases. Researchers at the University of Rhode Island created a tool called TickSpotters, where people can upload a picture of the tick they have been bitten to receive a risk assessment.

Depending on the area you live in, the type of the tick, and how long it has been attached to the body, researchers may advise you to take doxycycline or will provide you with a list of symptoms to watch out for.

The most commonly encountered tick in the U.S. is an American dog tick, which can pass germs that cause Rocky Mountain spotted fever. However, the risk is relatively low, as only about one in 100 ticks is infected, according to Mather.

If you perceive that it's a tick, you're going to worry about Lyme disease, even though there's no reason to worry about it. Your doctor doesn't know how to identify ticks either, and they'll treat you as if every tick is the same.


How to avoid a tick bite

Many people in the U.S. get ticks in their yard or neighborhood while walking their dogs or gardening. To avoid being bitten by a tick, consider the following steps:

  • When going outside, use Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellents. Avoid wooded and brushy areas with high grass and leaf litter. Walk in the center of the trails.
  • After being outdoors, check your body and clothing for ticks. If you find any, remove them immediately.
  • Examine gear and pets, as they may carry ticks home, which later attach to humans.
  • Shower soon after being outdoors. Showering may help wash off unattached ticks, and it is an excellent opportunity to examine your body for ticks.

Each year, about 476,000 Americans are diagnosed and treated for Lyme disease, many of them presumptively. However, we may soon need to worry less about the infection, thanks to the Lyme disease vaccine candidate, VLA15, which is currently in Phase 3 human trials.

While defining the start of the tick season can be tricky, scientists say warming temperatures do make ticks appear earlier, adding their early debut to the long list of health risks posed by climate change.


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