According to many experts, this summer may be the worst tick season to date. As temperatures start to heat up and the risks that go along with ticks — including Lyme disease and a new threat called Powassan — begin to increase, those who spend time outside for leisure, recreation, or exercise need to protect themselves from harmful insect activity.
One thing people should be aware of is increased rodent activity. Milder winters and warmer temperatures overall have led to an increase in mice population. One female house mouse can give birth to a half dozen babies every three weeks, but the reproduction of white-footed house mice is the concern here. Ticks love these mice, and as the population of mice spikes, so will that of ticks. In fact, 40 to 90% of white-footed mice carry Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that leads to Lyme disease. And while these kinds of mice are considered to be wild, they can easily find their way into homes and garages in rural areas — which means they may bring ticks along for the ride.
Therefore, residents need to be diligent about conducting tick checks, not only when they come in from outdoors but while inside too, if they live in an area near forests, fields, or wild lands.
But Lyme and other tick-spread diseases are a threat to city-dwellers too, as local parks are often the ideal habitat for white-footed mice. One New York City woman was treated for acute Lyme disease after finding a backlegged tick in her apartment on Park Avenue. She claimed not to have left the Big Apple for months; however, she spent a significant amount of time in Central Park with her child. Other New Yorkers have been treated for acute Lyme after spending time in Riverside Park. In fact, the New York City health department website notes that backlegged ticks have been found in four of the five boroughs, and some have tested positive for the bacteria that causes Lyme.
Lyme is bad enough, but it’s not the only tick-related threat that exists. A new tick-borne virus called Powassan is even more dangerous. This potentially life-threatening disease can be carried and transmitted by three kinds of ticks. Although 75 cases have been reported in the last decade, it’s an incredibly scary diagnosis, often involving fevers, vomiting, seizures, and brain swelling. And unlike Lyme, which can take days to present itself, the onset of Powassan typically takes only a few hours to reach critical levels.
So what can people do to protect themselves? Of course, avoidance of tick contact is key, so residents should stay out of areas with brush, high grass, and lots of leaves whenever possible. When hiking or walking, stay in the center of the path. Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants if you can, and be sure to tuck pant legs into long socks. Clothing and footwear should also be treated with permethrin products with at least a 0.5% concentration. Alternatively, pre-treated clothing can be purchased and may provide protection for even longer. Families should use repellant that contains 20% DEET, picaridin, or IR3535 or above on exposed skin.
Conduct full-body tick checks in full-length or handheld mirrors after visiting tick-infested areas. Special attention should be paid under the arms, in and around ears, inside the belly buttons, around the waist, in the hair, behind the knees, and between the legs. It’s important to shower or bathe directly after coming in from outside (within two hours is ideal) to wash off ticks and find them more easily. Be sure to examine pets and gear, too. You can tumble-dry clothes on high heat to kill ticks on dry clothing.
If you do find a tick on your person, use fine-tipped tweezers to grab hold of the tick. Do so as close as you can to the skin’s surface and pull with steady and even pressure. Fast or twisting movements can cause a tick’s mouth parts to break off and remain in the skin. After removal, clean the area with rubbing alcohol, soap and water, or iodine scrub. The CDC recommends submerging the tick in alcohol, putting it in a sealed bag or container (for testing), or flushing it down the toilet.
If you think that you or someone you know has been bitten by a tick, visit your doctor immediately to explore treatment options.