Scientists predict 2017 will bear the highest number of ticks in recent years, with a jump in reported cases of tick-borne illnesses in some regions of the U.S. Ticks can be found throughout the year in Florida, yet this year there are seasonal differences in the abundance of nymphs and adults. Ticks in either stage can transmit any diseases they carry, so quick removal of ticks and prevention of tick bites are both important.
Ticks are thriving thanks to a recent explosion of the white-footed mice population, which carry Lyme disease, Powassan virus and other tick-borne illnesses. Health and insect experts are calling it a perfect storm of conditions coming together to create a tick population explosion. Some scientists are predicting a surge in the number of Lyme-carrying ticks beginning this month and lasting into early summer.
“The risk to humans is going to be high starting this spring,” said Felicia Keesing, a biologist at Bard College in New York, who has spent years researching tick-borne diseases. “We want to get the word out so people can take precautions. Our dream is that we don’t see this translate to human cases.”
Although ticks can acquire the bacteria that cause Lyme and other diseases from other animals, the vast majority are infected by mice. Nymph ticks often look to attach themselves to an animal or human beginning in May to feed. But Keesing said rising global temperatures are moving feeding time up by a month. “May has been Lyme disease awareness month, but we may have to change it to April,” she said.
There was a total of 28,453 confirmed cases in the U.S. in 2015, the CDC said. The CDC estimates the number of Lyme disease cases nationwide could be 10 times higher than what's actually reported. Because Lyme disease's early symptoms — fatigue, muscle pain, joint swelling, fever — often mimic the flu or other diseases, infected people — and even their doctors — often don't test for it. Since it requires a special blood test, it is often misdiagnosed.
"With ticks, it is no longer just Lyme disease," Molaei said.
Each year, there are nearly 30,000 confirmed cases of Lyme disease across the United States, according to the CDC, though with unconfirmed cases, the total may be as high as 300,000.
Black-legged ticks are the common carriers of several tick-borne illnesses, including Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, Powassan virus and babesiosis, (other tick-borne diseases include Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Rickettsia paarkeri, Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness (STARI) and Ehrlichiosis and Anaplasmosis). They can have life cycles of up to two to three years and are most active between May and July. The blacklegged tick population increased because ticks had an abundance of mice to feed on when they hatched. However, this spring those same ticks will be looking for their next blood meal and since mice will be in short-supply, the ticks will turn to the next best thing - humans!
Ticks must be attached to humans for 36 to 48 hours or more before the Lyme bacteria can be transmitted. According to the CDC, Lyme disease is the most commonly reported vector-borne illness in the U.S. If detected early, the disease can be treated successfully with antibiotics. If left untreated, it can lead to serious heart and nervous system problems. Other long-term effects include headaches, chronic stomach problems, memory loss, stiffness of joints and speech impairment.
As Lyme disease cases increase, experts worry there could also be an increase in other tick-borne illnesses, like the rare but dangerous Powassan virus. Infected humans have an estimated 10 percent chance of dying from the virus, and half of those who survive sustain permanent neurological damage.
Unlike Lyme disease, which can take ticks at least a day to transmit to hosts, Powassan pathogens are passed on in just 15 minutes ― making immediate removal and treatment essential.
“It’s a really nasty disease,” Dr. Richard Ostfeld from Cary Institue of Ecosystem Studies said. “It is not something you ever want to get. ... This is definitely a disease that public health officials and ecologists need to keep their eyes on.”
While reported cases of Powassan are still extremely rare, Ostfeld said its potentially debilitating effects are just another reason people should educate themselves about tick behavior, removal and prevention.
Everyone is at risk for Powassan: Newborns, 20-somethings, the middle-aged, the elderly and the immunocompromised. Anyone bitten by an infected tick can get it, said Dr. Jennifer Lyons, chief of the Division of Neurological Infections and Inflammatory Diseases at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Infections are most likely during late spring, early summer and mid-fall, when ticks are most active.
"About 15% of patients who are infected and have symptoms are not going survive," said Lyons. "Of the survivors, at least 50% will have long-term neurological damage that is not going to resolve."
Although most infected people will never show symptoms, those who do become sick usually do so a few days to about a week after the tick bite, she said. The most common symptoms will be fever and headache. The unlucky few who develop a more serious illness will do so "very quickly over the next couple of days," she said. "You start to develop difficulties with maintaining your consciousness and your cognition. ... You may develop seizures. You may develop inability to breathe on your own."
Just as there are no vaccines to prevent infection, there are also no treatments for Powassan.
"To make the matter more complicated, we are seeing greater number of ticks infected with other tick-associated pathogens, including babesiosis and anaplasmosis," Goudarz Molaei, a research scientist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station said.
Both babesiosis and anaplasmosis usually don't have symptoms, just like Powassan, though both may cause severe or even life-threatening illnesses.
Before heading out, wear light colored clothing, dress in long sleeves and pants, closed-toe shoes and consider tucking pant legs into socks, especially if you will be walking in tall grass or wooded areas. If hiking through the woods, remember to walk in the center of trails to avoid ticks. Also, use a tick repellant containing DEET. For prolonged outdoor activities such as camping, look for clothing and camping gear that is treated with permethrin.
Upon returning home from a walk through the woods, time in the garden or camping, it's important to perform a thorough tick check - from head to toe. If you find a tick on your body, remove it with a slow, steady pull so as not to break off the mouthparts and leave them in the skin. Then wash hands and bite site thoroughly with soap and water. Flush ticks down the toilet or wrap them tightly in tissue before disposing in a closed receptacle. If you suspect a tick bite, seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Several tick diseases are present in Florida, and others can be contracted during travel.
If you are bitten by a tick and become ill, contact your physician. Depending on the disease and individual reactions, it may take several weeks for symptoms to appear.
Let's not forget our four legged companions, as fleas and ticks have always been, and will become a problem for cats and dogs. Florida’s warm and humid climate is perfect for them to survive year-round.
Fleas carry tapeworm eggs inside the body. When dogs and cats lick themselves, if digested, the tapeworm attaches itself to the pet's intestines.
Deer Ticks can cause the Lyme disease. American dog Ticks can carry Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and can cause tick paralysis.
The Brown Tick can cause Ehrlichiosis (a bacterial illness that causes flu like symptoms).
The Lone Star Tick carries Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
The best time to start flea and tick control program is in the late spring (although in Florida I recommend constant protection), before infestation begins. The first steps include, cleaning and vacuuming all surfaces where pets live. This includes washing their beds and blankets. Make sure you check the walls and behind hanging frames when cleaning and treating areas in your house. Ticks are in the arachnid family so they live on walls.
As for the yard, keep your grass cut about 3 inches or shorter. Keep shrubs and bushes near your house pruned. When applying insecticides in your yard, do not forget to treat porches, fences and decks. Lastly, treat your garden and areas with mulch because ticks will hide wherever it is safe.