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Worse Tick Season Coming Up This Year

Apr 17th, 2012

tick seasonWarm weather encourages us to be closer to nature. It’s great time for camping, hiking, and picnics. But the more time we spend outside, the more we are exposed to harmful, unwanted hitchhikers: ticks. Fortunately, there are some things we can do to limit our exposure and stay safe.

This year will be a particularly bad tick season, according to disease ecologist Dr. Richard S. Ostfeld of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York. He attributes this season’s tick menace to the fluctuation in white-footed mouse population which went up two years ago because of the good acorn season and went down last year due to a bad acorn season.

Ticks feed on white-footed mice that carry Borrelia burgdorferi (the Lyme disease-causing bacterium). Along with the mice population, the number of infected ticks went up last year, Dr. Ostfeld said. This year, the lower mice population means ticks will look for other mammals to feast on, including humans.

Ticks feed during the larva, nymph, and adult stages, and the nymph season (May to July) will be more dangerous since many people visit the woods during this time and nymphs are difficult to spot. “You might not even know they’re crawling on you or embedding in your skin. But infected nymphs are responsible for the vast majority of Lyme cases,” Dr. Ostfeld said.

The number of Lyme-infected nymphs is expected to be very high this spring, owing to the large mice population last year, during their larva stage, according to Dr. Ostfeld. “About 90 percent of larvae that feed on mice get infected. That’s twice as much as with any other host,” he added.

Ticks are particularly attracted to mice because of their poor grooming, but many other mammals are also part of the menu. The whitetail deer has long been regarded as the main vector of Lyme disease, but Dr. Ostfeld argues that the deer’s role may be an exaggeration.

“There’s all this entrenched dogma about the quintessential role of deer in the disease, but we find in our research sites that fluctuating deer abundance has no explanatory power,” Dr. Ostfeld said. “A good number of studies show actual cases of Lyme disease don’t correlate with deer numbers.”

Weather also greatly affects tick behavior, they go dormant during dry conditions and very cold or very warm temperatures, according to Dr. Ostfeld. “This fools people into thinking that the ticks have been killed, but once harsh conditions moderate — a warming trend in winter, or a thunderstorm in summer — ticks come out with a vengeance,” he added.

Prevention is key when it comes to protecting ourselves from Lyme disease, says Dr. Gary P. Wormser, chief of infectious disease at Westchester Medical Center. Taking a few precautions is much easier than dealing with Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses after you’re infected. The following are Dr. Wormser’s tips to avoid tick bites.

1. Avoid going near tall grass, shrubs, and other areas where leaf litter are plenty.

2. Apply insect repellant on exposed skin. Repellants with DEET are proven to be effective.

3. After your trip outdoors, take a shower or bath, preferably within two hours of exposure to reduce chances of tick bites.

4. Inspect your skin for ticks. You can ask for someone’s help to help you search for ticks thoroughly. Removing the tick within 24 hours after being bitten reduces the chances of contracting the disease.

When removing ticks, you don’t really have to get all of it out. “They do cement themselves in,” Dr. Wormser says, “and normally they would stay on your body for 3-7 days if left undisturbed, when you pull them out, occasionally a little bit of the mouth part will remain in, but that isn’t necessarily a concern because it comes out on its own.”

If you suspect that you may have a chance of contracting Lymes Disease, visit your NY health care provider for an appointment.

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