Harsh winter won’t lower Lyme disease risks this spring and summer

Despite winter’s freezing temperatures and a chilly start to spring, a Connecticut health expert expects the threat of Lyme disease to be just as high this spring and summer as it was last year. “It’s business as usual for tick season,” says Kirby C. Stafford III, Ph.D., chief scientist and state entomologist of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. “The ticks were not impacted by this winter’s cold weather and should be relatively healthy and active this spring.”

Dr. Stafford explained that extreme cold might slow the spread of some invasive species of insects, but many ticks that transmit Lyme (called Ixodes scapularis, also known as blacklegged or deer ticks) probably did not die-off because snow “provides a cover with humidity and ameliorates cold temperature extremes.” A dry winter might have been detrimental to their survivability, he said, since ticks require a lot of humidity to survive. “But we definitely didn’t have a dry winter.”

Although adult deer ticks (about the size of a sesame seed) are active right now, ticks are particularly dangerous from mid-May to July when they are in their hungry “nymph” stage. Their tiny size (less than the head of a pin) makes it more difficult to detect them on one’s clothing or skin, and they may feed—often unnoticed—for days. A bite from an infected tick can leave you with a mix of symptoms that range from fatigue and flu-like aches and pains to serious and long-term complications that affect the brain, joints, nerves, heart and muscles — all possible indications of Lyme disease.

While Lyme is the predominant tick-borne illness in the U.S., it isn’t the only one. Ticks can spread several other diseases to humans, including anaplasmosis, babesiosis and the extremely rare Powassan virus. “Babesia, particularly, is slowly spreading through the state,” says Dr. Stafford. “Residents have to be aware there is a chance for multiple infections from a tick, though Lyme disease is the predominant one.”

“Lyme disease is a tremendous public health problem with more than 300,000 Americans newly diagnosed with the disease every year,” said Debbie Siciliano, LRA co-founder and co-president. “But many people who spend a lot of time outdoors don’t realize that one deer tick can infect you with more than just Lyme. It’s extremely important to stay vigilant to avoid being bitten by a tick.”

To decrease your risk, here are 10 important actions you can take:

• Whenever possible, avoid tick habitats—wooded, bushy, or grassy areas. Try to walk, run or bike in the middle of trails and don’t sit directly on the ground or on stone walls.

• When hiking in the woods, gardening, camping or mowing the lawn in tick-infested areas, wear light-colored clothing (to make ticks easier to spot), a long-sleeved shirt, long pants tucked into tight-fitting socks, a hat, and closed-toe shoes. Keep long hair tied back, especially when gardening.

• Use a DEET-containing insect repellent on exposed skin. Don’t spray it directly on your face; spray it on your hands and then apply it to your face. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, oil of lemon eucalyptus, a more natural product, can also be used.

• Spray permethrin-containing products on your clothing. Permethrin is a repellent that kills ticks on contact. You can also buy clothing pre-treated with Permethrin from companies such as Insect Shield, REI, Columbia and L.L. Bean. Since ticks crawl up and do not jump, fly or drop from trees, make sure you spray tick repellent on all your shoes as ticks will latch on to your shoe laces and crawl up your leg. Permethrin should not be applied to the skin.

• After spending time outdoors, toss your clothes in a dryer on high heat for 15 minutes and then wash them. Washing, in hot water, will not kill ticks—only dry heat will.

• Do a full-body tick check and pay particular attention to areas between the toes, on the ankles, behind the knees and ears, inside the belly button, on the neck and scalp and around all head and body hair. Take a shower and wash your hair.

• Protect your pets. There are numerous topical sprays and spot-ons on the market today to protect your pets from tick-borne diseases. Groom your pet after a romp outdoors to find and remove ticks that could pose a risk to you or your family.

• If you find a tick attached to your skin, it needs to be removed properly and promptly. Using fine-tipped tweezers, grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible and gently pull straight out. Do not squeeze the belly of the tick as improper removal increases the risk of infection. After removing the tick, clean the bite wound and your hands with a disinfectant such as rubbing alcohol.

Place the tick in a zipper type plastic sealed bag with a blade of grass or moist cotton ball and bring to your local health department for testing, if available in your area. The blade of grass provides moisture to keep the tick alive. Both dead and live ticks may be tested, but live ticks yield quicker test results.

• Look for symptoms. A bulls-eye rash is only one way to tell if you’ve been infected. Symptoms of Lyme can be subtler than many people believe. Although most people associate Lyme with the bulls-eye-shaped “erythema migrans” (EM) rash, some people never develop it. Early stage Lyme may manifest as a mild flu-like illness with a headache, a stiff neck, or a rash so pale or oddly positioned that it’s barely noticeable.

• To reduce the tick population around your home, keep up with your landscaping. Ticks love to hide in plants and shrubs and are mostly found near the edge of a garden in shady areas. Mow grass regularly, remove weeds, clear leaf litter and brush, especially along the edges of the lawn, stonewalls and driveways.

For more information, visit LymeResearchAlliance.org.