For people in many parts of the U.S., dealing with ticks is a regular part of life. And as ticks expand their reach, even more of the country will have to think about how to stay safe from tick-borne diseases.
Traditionally, experts think of peak tick season as running from about May through July, with the possibility of a second, smaller peak in activity around October, Jean Tsao, associate professor in the department of fisheries and wildlife at Michigan State University, told TODAY. But the truth is that you can get tick-borne illnesses at any point in the year, she said.
“Technically, tick season never ends,” Saravanan Thangamani, professor in the department of microbiology and immunology at the SUNY Upstate Medical University and director of the SUNY Center for Environmental Health and Medicine, told TODAY. In fact, his lab receives tick samples from New York state residents year-round.
What will this year's tick season be like?
Continuing a trend that we've seen over the past several years, this year's tick season is likely to be severe, Thangamani said. It’s still too early to predict what this season might hold for tick-borne diseases, he said, but he’s already seen a 43% increase in the number of ticks submitted for testing compared to last March.
While there does tend to be a fair amount of variation from year to year, overall "there's definitely been an increase in the number of tick-associated infections diagnosed," Dr. Karen Bloch, professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told TODAY.
"And these are syndromes caused by different ticks," she said. "So it's really fascinating to see that, almost regardless of geographic area or disease, we are seeing an upswing."
And tick habitats are changing and expanding as well, Thangamani said. “We are actually seeing ticks in areas that never reported ticks before,” he explained. “And I think this trend is going to continue.” The lone star tick, which has crept further into the Northeast over the past few decades, is so “aggressive and numerous” that it can be difficult for researchers to even study other ticks in the area, Tsao said.
Lone star ticks have made plenty of headlines this tick season because being bitten by one can lead to alpha-gal syndrome, a life-threaten red meat allergy. About 5,000 people get it every year, NBC News medical correspondent Dr. John Torres said on TODAY Tuesday.
Researchers are also noticing new (to us) varieties of ticks and tick-borne diseases in the country, including the spread of the Asian longhorn tick as well as the Powassan virus, the experts said. A Connecticut woman died from Powassan virus earlier this year.
What makes tick seasons more severe?
The severity of a particular tick season depends on factors stemming from weather patterns, ecological factors in the ticks' habitat and human behavior. When the weather is warmer, spring starts earlier and people are outside more often, those conditions align to allow for more "human-tick encounters," Thangamani said.
Part of that depends on "how well the ticks survive over the winter months," said Bloch, whose research focuses on emerging tick-borne diseases. "And so, typically, if there's a milder or wetter winter, that is good for ticks." If more ticks survive the winter, that increases the chances for tick-borne pathogens — like those that cause Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever — to spread.
With shorter winters and warmer days overall, changing climate patterns are likely to be a factor in making tick seasons steadily more severe, Thangamani said.
But different ticks live in different areas, and the way their dynamics are changing can be complex and unique from state to state — or even county to county. As mouse and deer populations move around, "they actually disperse the ticks from one area to another," Thangamani explained. Or, if there are fewer animal hosts to pick up the ticks in a particular area, "there could be more ticks out there" ready to bite when you walk by, Tsao said.
How to avoid ticks and prevent tick-borne diseases
If you can, the best advice is to generally avoid exploring the grassy, woody or brushy areas where ticks live, Tsao said. But if you know you're going to be outdoors in a tick-heavy area or you live in a part of the U.S. where "there's a tick for every habitat," she said, it's crucial to take other precautions:
- Be tick-aware, Thangamani advised. Take care to learn about the ticks that live in your part of the country, including what they look like, their preferred habitat and when they're most active.
- Perform diligent tick checks. Every time you come inside after doing something that might have exposed you to ticks, thoroughly check your body and clothes for ticks, the CDC recommends. That includes your underarms, belly button, ears, hair and other good hiding places. Torres suggested doing this in the shower.
- Don't forget about pets: Even if you're not someone who spends a lot of time outdoors, your pets might, Bloch said. So take care to check and treat them for ticks as well.
- Use EPA-registered repellants when exploring outdoors. These products will help keep ticks off you.
- Treat your clothes with permethrin. You can treat your hiking clothes and gear with permethrin to help keep ticks away, Tsao said. Or you can buy pre-treated items.
- If you're hiking, stick to the trails. Ticks hang out in brush, grass and other foliage, so don't venture off the trail when you're hiking. And, if you can, stick to the center of trail, the CDC says.
- Wear long sleeves and pants. It might be uncomfortable in the heat of summer, Bloch said, but the less exposed skin, the better. Tuck your pants into your socks, Torres added.
- Wear lighter colors, Bloch suggested. This will make it easier to spot ticks if they're crawling on your clothes.
- Change your clothes as soon as you get home. Once you've checked them for ticks, that is.
- If you need to wash your clothes, use warm water, Thangamani said. Otherwise, run them in the dryer soon after getting home, Bloch advised.
How to remove ticks safely
The CDC has specific recommendations for safely removing a tick from your skin:
- Use tweezers to hold onto the tick as close to your skin as possible.
- Pull the tick upward with a steady, even motion. Try not to twist it or move it around too much because that can cause parts of the tick's mouth to break off in your skin.
- If pieces of the tick are left in your skin, try to remove them with tweezers. But if you can't get them out, leave the area alone to heal.
- Once you've removed the tick, clean the area (and your hands) with soap and water or rubbing alcohol.
Keep in mind that, when removing a tick, "you don't want to crush it," Bloch said. If you do, you might unintentionally express the tick's saliva further into your wound, which "can actually increase your risk of getting a tick-borne infection," she said. Instead, she echoed the CDC recommendation to use tweezers to firmly pry it off your body.
And, if at all possible, save your tick in a sealed Ziploc bag, Tsao advised. (Putting it in the freezer should be enough to kill it.) You don't necessarily have to get it tested for potential pathogens, but this way, "if you end up feeling sick, you have this tick that you can bring to your doctor," she said.
Consider sending the tick to a lab for testing, Thangamani said. Local universities may have free research programs (like his) that allow you do that easily. Or, if you're in you can send a photo of the tick for a quick expert identification using an app like The Tick App, which Tsao helped develop.
When to see a doctor after a tick bite
You don't necessarily need to see a doctor after every brush with a tick. "All these diseases require the tick to be attached for a period of time, which can range from hours to even days," Bloch said. So if you simply notice a tick walking on your clothes or if it attaches and you're able to remove it quickly, that isn't likely to be a huge cause for concern.
But if you get a tick bite or you were outdoors in an area where you may have come into contact with ticks and you develop certain symptoms, you should talk to your doctor, she said. Those worrying symptoms include:
- Rash, especially one that looks like a bull's-eye.
- Stiff neck.
"Those are the kind of symptoms that would (require) the need for medical evaluation pretty promptly," Bloch said.
In fact, in areas where Lyme disease is common, you may able to get prophylactic antibiotics if you can get evaluated quickly enough. If you're able to see your doctor within 72 hours of a tick bite and have evidence that the tick was attached to you for at least 36 hours (which is where keeping the tick comes in really handy, Tsao said), your doctor can prescribe the medication.
Tick bites and Lyme disease can also result in long-term symptoms, especially if they're not addressed quickly. These can include joint pain and neurological symptoms, such as weakness, numbness and facial droop, Torres said. Fortunately, a vaccine against Lyme disease is currently in clinical trials and could be available within the next two or so years, according to Torres.