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Tick-Borne Illnesses Are on the Rise

Dealing with ticks is commonplace for a lot of Americans. You’ve probably been told to check yourself for ticks or look out for a “bullseye” rash after hiking or spending prolonged time in grassy areas. However, several species of ticks are migrating more than ever, and the CDC warns that we should take increased tick precautions in the years to come.

In 2019, the CDC reported 50,865 cases of tick-borne disease, compared to 47,743 in 2018. Similar data shows that yearly cases of tick-borne illness doubled between 2004 and 2019. Experts say this upward trend is likely to continue and we will continue to experience more severe tick seasons going forward. Interestingly, one researcher notes this increase in tick-borne illness isn’t exclusive to any one illness, tick species or even geographical region; it’s being seen across the board.

Why the Uptick?

Generally speaking, ticks prefer warm climates with plenty of grass and woods, which is why they’ve primarily been found in southeastern states in the past. However, changing climate patterns across the country have made it possible for ticks to survive in regions they couldn’t previously. For instance, some places in the Midwest and Northeast have been experiencing milder-than-normal winters and, as a result, tick populations are thriving in regions that would usually kill them. This has allowed ticks to migrate further north and spread to more areas than ever before. Lyme-disease carrying ticks can now be found in about half of U.S. counties.

Human behavior also plays a role in the rise of tick-borne illnesses. Increasing land development, for example, tears down wild tick habitat and brings ticks in closer proximity to humans. Many people also found themselves outdoors more often after the onset of the pandemic, which could increase “human-tick encounters” and therefore increase instances of tick-borne illness.

“In the age of COVID-19, people realize that outdoor activities are safer than indoor activities,” said Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York. “A lot of outdoor venues such as national parks have had a boom in visitors. It’s only natural that more tick-borne illnesses will spread.”

Tick-borne Illnesses

By far, the most common tick-borne illness in the U.S. and Canada is Lyme disease. Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that can cause flu-like symptoms, rash, joint pain and neurological problems. The infection is transmitted when a deer tick attaches itself to your body and feeds for at least 36 hours. Lyme disease can have a long incubation period, sometimes taking months for symptoms to appear. If left untreated, the infection can lead to chronic arthritis, impaired memory and heart rhythm irregularities. Luckily, when detected early and treated with antibiotics, most people can recover fully.

In recent years, there has been growing concern about other tick-borne pathogens in the U.S., such as Powassan virus (which can cause severe infections like meningitis) and alpha-gal syndrome (a rare allergy to red meat caused by a Lone Star tick bite). Ultimately, the risk level for each tick-borne illness will depend on where you live, since most pathogens are specific to certain types of ticks. The CDC has an online tool that can help you identify the most common ticks in your region. Regardless of what kind of tick you’re dealing with, advice on how to stay safe is the same:

How to Practice Safety Against Ticks

  1. Know where ticks thrive. Ticks typically hide in grassy, bushy or wooded areas, which can include backyards, gardens and parks.
  2. Perform tick checks on your clothes and body after spending time outside. Be sure to check more discreet spots like your underarms, belly button, ears and hair.
  3. If possible, shower and change your clothes within two hours of coming inside. Drying your clothes on high heat for 10 minutes can kill any ticks that might be hiding on them.
  4. Use EPA-approved repellents like DEET, permethrin and picaridin when outside.
  5. Wear long, light-colored clothing. Long sleeves and pants cover exposed skin and light colors make it easier to spot small, dark-colored ticks.

How to Address a Tick Bite

  1. Remove the tick as soon as possible. All tick-borne diseases require the tick to be attached to your body for a period of time, so prompt removal is the best way to prevent disease transmission. Safely remove the tick using fine-tipped tweezers and pay special attention to keeping the tick intact.
  2. Clean the bite area thoroughly with soap and water or rubbing alcohol.
  3. If possible, save the tick in a sealed plastic bag (like Ziploc) in case your doctor suggests testing it for pathogens.
  4. Watch for symptoms of tick-borne illness for the next 30 days, which can include:
    • Rash
    • Fever and chills
    • Fatigue
    • Headache
    • Muscle pain and joint swelling
  5. If you believe the tick was on your body for more than 36 hours or you begin to develop symptoms of illness, contact your doctor.

[Hannah Sabitoni]

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