It is, unfortunately, the new reality.
Once upon a time, going into the woods – to hunt, fish a stream, hike a trail, camp – and coming out again was something that could be accomplished without worry. No more.
Now, each outing should start with precautions and end with a full-body check.
Black-legged ticks, the pests that carry Lyme disease, have spread throughout the Northeast and upper Midwest and are slowly but surely filling in the gaps between.
No one knows what’s behind their appearance.
“We don’t have a good answer to that question. And it’s a great question,” said Rick Ostfeld, senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y., who’s been studying ticks for 25 years
One theory holds that ticks were common across the Northeast until European settlers cleared standing forests, Ostfeld said. The thinking, he added, is they’re now simply reclaiming old habitats.
What seems certain is ticks aren’t going away.
“They’re here. That’s just the way it is now, and probably forever,” said Tom Simmons, a professor of environmental health at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
“So at the end of the day, it really comes down to taking preventative measures. It’s a behavioral thing.”
People have been slow to adapt.
According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, there were 38.069 diagnosed cases of Lyme disease in American in 2015, the latest year for which numbers are available. That ranked it the fifth-most-common “notifiable disease” nationally.
That doesn’t tell the story, though.
“Keep in mind that the number of reported cases does not reflect every case of Lyme disease that is diagnosed in the United States every year,” said Kate Fowlie, spokeswoman with the CDC.
“Studies suggest that roughly 300,000 people are diagnosed with Lyme disease each year in the United States.”
This might be an especially bad season for new cases.
Ostfeld said his research shows the abundance of ticks is predicated not on white-tailed deer populations, as many believe, but on acorns and white-footed mice.
When oak forests produce a banner crop of acorns, wildlife simply can’t consume them all, Ostfeld said. Mice store the surplus and “get a jump start on reproduction.”
Their population booms the following summer, he said.
The mice are in turn the perfect host, he added. Unlike raccoons, opossums, squirrels and other mammals, they’re not very good at grooming away larval ticks.
So the year after a mouse boom, tick numbers explode, Ostfeld said.
That’s a concern now.
Large areas of the Northeast had lots of acorns in 2015. They’ll see lots of ticks this year, Ostfeld said.
Outdoorsmen and women are on their own for dealing with that.
While the Food and Drug Administration recently approved clinical trials for a human Lyme disease vaccine, there isn’t one yet available, Fowlie said.
A vaccine for mice might be closer.
A Nashville company called US Biologic is seeking federal approval for an oral one. Much like the U.S. Department of Agriculture drops fish cakes containing rabies vaccine from airplanes to inoculate raccoons, US Biologic would like to distribute Lyme vaccine by hand or using a timed-release system, said chief executive officer Mason Kauffman..
Field trials in New York showed a “significant drop” in infected ticks, he said. Results of a more recent three-year study in Connecticut are pending.
Similarly, researchers with the Tick-borne Diseases Program in New Jersey found that bait boxes that treat visiting hungry mice with insecticides did lead to 97 percent fewer ticks in study areas. But it takes two years to see that change, they wrote.
In the meantime, people shouldn’t be afraid to go outside, said Jeff Covelli of New Castle, who’s affiliated with the PA Lyme Resource Network.
They do need to use caution, though, he said. He knows. His wife and son both contracted Lyme disease.
With his son especially, there have been serious health implications, he said.
“Once you get it, it’s an absolute mess,” Covelli said. “It’s like trying to put together a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle one piece at a time.”
Covelli is adamant that outdoors-oriented people need to be proactive in avoiding similar troubles. That includes doing regular tick checks after each outing.
“The key, the absolute key going forward, is prevention,” he said. “It’s something people have to be mindful of.”
Look closely when doing checks, Simmons said.
Adult ticks — about the size of a sesame seed – are relatively easy to spot, he said. Nymph-stage ticks – about the size of a poppy seed – are not. They’re also more worrisome, he said, as they account for most cases of Lyme.
They’ll become more common going forward, he added, with their numbers peaking in mid-July.
Not all ticks carry Lyme disease, but anyone finding one should see a doctor immediately, said Nicole Chinnici, a forensic scientist at the Northeast Wildlife DNA Laboratory at East Stroudsburg University. Save the tick, too, she suggested, so doctors know what they’re dealing with.
“Right now, the very best way to know if you’ve been infected is to get your tick tested,” Chinnici said.
If that’s inconvenient, it’s just the way things are, Simmons said.
“If you go outside, you’re at risk. People have to understand that and take precautions,” he said.
Tick prevention and care
How to avoid ticks and what to do if you’re bitten? Here’s advice from the U.S. Center for Disease Control.
- Avoid wooded and brushy areas with high grass and leaf litter.
- Walk in the center of trails.
- Use repellents that contain 20 to 30 percent DEET on exposed skin.
- Use products that contain permethrin on clothing.
- Shower within two hours of coming indoors to more easily find and wash off ticks.
- Conduct a full-body tick check using a hand-held or full-length mirror to view all parts of your body. Pay special attention to armpits, ears, the belly button, behind the knees, between the legs, around the waist and especially in hair.
- Examine gear and pets for ticks that might attach to you later.
- Tumble dry clothes in a dryer on high heat for 10 minutes to kill ticks.
- If you find a tick, remove it using fine-tipped tweezers. Grasp it as close to the skin as possible and pull upward with steady, even pressure. Thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands.
The PA Lyme Resource Network offers additional information on Lyme diagnosis, support groups, videos, and more at www.palyme.org.
For information on getting ticks tested, visit the Northeast Wildlife DNA Laboratory site at www.esu.edu/dna.