Unless you were a Boy Scout or your father is an avid woodsman, you might not think very often about the minuscule ticks lurking in the woods, waiting to take a bite out of you. But as summer fades into fall, it’s more important than ever to make sure the creepy crawlies in the backyard don’t find a way to make your arms and legs their home. It’s not just because of the changing of the seasons, though — the number of tick-related diseases are on the rise, and a shocking number of cases go undetected or unreported.
The most common tick-borne illness that comes to mind is Lyme disease, which requires antibiotic treatment. Otherwise, the rash, fatigue, and fever that’s associated with the disease could become much more serious, eventually affecting the nervous system. The number of cases has grown significantly over the past several years, and two years ago the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicted there would be 300,000 cases of Lyme disease in the United States each year — 10 times the number reported to the CDC in past years.
Part of the reason the estimate grew so dramatically is that recent research shows the number of people infected from ticks is 3 to 12 times higher than the number of cases that actually get reported. “We know that routine surveillance only gives us part of the picture, and that the true number of illnesses is much greater,” said Dr. Paul Mead, chief of epidemiology and surveillance for CDC’s Lyme disease program. “This new preliminary estimate confirms that Lyme disease is a tremendous public health problem in the United States, and clearly highlights the urgent need for prevention.”
A growing number of cases
The CDC recently redrew its map of areas where people are most at risk for contracting Lyme disease. Tickborne diseases are often highly dependent on geography, based on the areas in which those ticks call home. Lyme disease is most often present in the Northeast and parts of the upper Midwest, but the number of high-risk areas grew from fewer than five states to 17 in the past 20 years, reports National Geographic contributor Maryn McKenna.
One reason scientists give for the growth of tick-infested areas is shifts in climate — ticks can stay alive through the winter months if temperatures stay mostly above freezing and if the ground isn’t frozen solid. Another reason, according to The Washington Post, is an increase in residential developments that are built in previously undisturbed areas. Mice, deer, and the ticks themselves can all be carriers of the disease-causing bacteria, and they come into closer contact with humans when their natural habitat is disturbed.
Those reasons are also why tick-related illnesses need to be more of a concern for people, McKenna writes. “Until now, a built-in protection against tickborne diseases has been that the tick species that carry particular pathogens have specific geographical ranges … But as climate change affects animal and insect ranges, those guarantees are collapsing.”
There are other tick-related illnesses that are more prevalent in parts of Arizona and the western United States, but in many cases those lines are becoming blurred. New tick-related diseases are being discovered, and some can have long-lasting repercussions if they’re not treated. The most concerning part is that many of these illnesses have symptoms that, at first, aren’t so concerning: You can chalk a headache or fever up to a lot of things before you realize you might have been bitten by a tick.
How to prevent tick bites
That’s the bad news. What makes it worse is that those geographic boundaries aren’t safe anymore, meaning you should keep an eye out for the creatures even if you’re not in a hot-spot. However, there are plenty of ways to make sure you and your family aren’t a tick’s next meal. According to the CDC, follow these steps if you think you might be at risk for attracting ticks.
If you’re hiking, wear light-colored clothing (the dark ticks are easier to spot), and tuck pant legs into your socks. Wear a hat to deter them from getting into your hair.
Know areas ticks love: Steer clear of moist and humid environments that also have ample wooded or grassy areas. Try to rid your lawn of leaf clutter and other natural debris. If these things are unavoidable (a.k.a. anytime you’re in the woods), do an extra careful check once you’re back inside.
Use a repellent with DEET on your skin. The CDC recommends sprays with at least 20% DEET — children should also be sprayed, but with sprays of no more than 30% DEET, away from their hands and faces.
Pre-treat your gear like hiking boots, tents, and clothing with permethrin, which kills ticks on the spot. Products with 0.5% permethrin are a good start, and the CDC has a list of other repellents registered by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Bathe or shower soon after getting back inside, preferably within two hours.
Tumble clothes in a dryer on high heat for an hour to kill any ticks that might still be stuck on them.
Check your body, being especially alert in your hair, in and around your ears, the inside of your belly button, and under your arms.
If you do find a tick, the CDC gives instructions for how to remove it safely. Plus, you can always call your doctor. Whatever you do, don’t let it hang out for long.