April 13, 2012 at 8:40 AM ET
By April Hussar
Picnics, hikes, afternoons in the garden -- all wonderful ways to take advantage of the warmer weather. But keep in mind that along with fresh air and exercise, you're also potentially exposing yourself to tiny, unwanted visitors -- ticks! Luckily, with a few steps, you can minimize your exposure and keep yourself safe.
According to Dr. Richard S. Ostfeld, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y., this is poised to be an especially bad tick season, because of the way the white-footed mouse population was affected by a great acorn season two years ago, and a bad acorn season this past year.
Since ticks feast on white-footed mice, and white-footed mice are very effective at transmitting Borrelia burgdorferi (the bacterium that causes Lyme disease), the infected tick population grew last year, says Dr. Ostfeld. Now, this year, fewer acorns means fewer mice, which in turn, theorizes Dr. Ostfeld, essentially means ticks will need something else to snack on. Us!
Gary P. Wormser, M.D., the chief of infectious diseases at Westchester Medical Center and a professor at New York Medical College, is familiar with Dr. Ostfeld's theory. "That, combined with the nice weather, and people being out and about enjoying the nice weather, might bring people into contact with more ticks," he says.
Ticks are less active in cold weather, Dr. Wormser explains, but they can still be active even in the winter as long as it's not freezing. "And this has been such a mild winter and spring, they're likely to be more active than they would be under colder conditions, and people are more likely to be outside," he says.
Plus, Dr. Wormser says the even years tend to be a little worse in terms of numbers of cases of Lyme disease. "I'm not sure exactly why that is," he says, noting that the deer tick has a two-year life cycle, so it's possible there are more of them around during the even years. "It's not a very scientific principle," he says, "but it's an observation!"
Whether or not there are more ticks this year than usual, it's important to protect yourself. "Prevention is the key," says Dr. Wormser, who points out that it's much easier to take a few precautions in advance than deal with Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses after the fact. Here are his top strategies for preventing tick bites:
1. Stay away from tall grass, bushy shrubs and areas where there's a lot of leaf litter. "Manicured lawns that are well-mowed are less risky," he says.
2. Use insect repellant on your exposed skin (other than your hands and face). Dr. Wormser recommends using repellant with DEET, because it's proven to be effective. "You can easily see a tick that's on your face or your hands," he explains.
3. After you've been outside and potentially exposed to ticks, take a shower or a bath. "If you can bathe within a couple of hours of exposure, you will reduce your changes of getting a tick bite."
4. Do a tick check! Dr. Wormser says one of the best strategies is to enlist someone's help and check your body for ticks every 24 hours during the time you are potentially exposed to ticks. "Look at your entire body to see if there are any attached ticks, and remove them," he says. "If you can remove the tick within 24 hours of it biting you, you usually don't contract any of the related diseases."
Speaking of removing ticks -- Dr. Wormer says is a misconception that you have to get every last bit of the tick out. "They do cement themselves in," he says, "and normally they would stay on your body for 3-7 days if left undisturbed." So, he says, "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."
Once you pull out the tick with tweezers, Dr. Wormser recommends treating the area with a topical antibacterial (like Bacitracin) and observing the area for at least a month. "Typically a rash would develop 7-14 days after your remove the tick," he says, so if you have a rash right away, it's probably a reaction to the bite itself, rather than Lyme disease. In addition to watching out for a rash, you should make an appointment with your doctor if you have symptoms like headaches or fevers that don't seem to be related to a cold, says Dr. Wormser.
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