The coming warm season may see a surge in cases of tick-borne Lyme disease, especially in the Northeast, NPR reports. The reason: 2016 was a banner year for white-footed mice, an ideal host for Lyme-infested ticks.
Ecologists in the Northeast can predict rates of Lyme in the coming year by measuring the mouse population, which proliferates alongside human development. Roads, farms, and houses break up forests and make a region less hospitable to larger predators like foxes and coyotes, who would normally keep the mouse population in check. A single mouse can sustain dozens of ticks and doesn’t groom itself to remove them, like say, a possum. With more mice, ticks multiply exponentially. With more ticks, there’s more Lyme disease in humans.
“We’re anticipating 2017 to be a particularly risky year for Lyme,” ecologist Rick Ostfeld, who has studied Lyme disease for more than 20 years, tells NPR.
Researchers at the CDC have noted a surge in Lyme across the country in the last three decades. It estimates there are likely about 300,000 cases of Lyme in the United States today, and that number is growing.
If left untreated, the disease can produce neurological damage, joint pain, and severe fatigue. Still, experts say, there are things one can do to offset the risks of tick exposure. Here is a list of tips from Pat Smith, president of the Lyme Disease Association, from our article “What We Don’t Know About Lyme”:
- Walk in the middle of trails. Avoid sitting on logs or leaning on trees.
- Wear a hat. Tuck your hair in, if possible.
- Wear a long-sleeved shirt, fitted at the waist.
- Wear boots or shoes, not sandals. No bare feet.
- Wear long pants tucked into high socks, or duct tape around pant bottoms.
- Consider applying Deet for skin and permethrin for clothes (use your own best judgment in weighing exposure to these toxins against risk of tick bites).
- Wear white or light-colored clothing so ticks stand out.
- Check yourself and your children for ticks immediately after outdoor exposure. Repeat the tick check again, three days later. Remember that nymphal (adolescent) ticks can look like freckles. They are the size of poppy seeds.
- If you find an attached tick, remove it carefully with tweezers placed as close to the skin as possible. Pull the tick upward with steady, even pressure, making sure that mouth parts are cleanly removed. Apply antiseptic and call a doctor. Save the tick in a sealed container with a moist cotton ball. Call your state health department to inquire about testing. (Ticks do fall off on their own eventually, so even if you don’t see a tick, it is possible that you may have been exposed to disease.)
- Consult your doctor about treating the tick bite with oral antibiotics. Though the number of days required for this treatment remains controversial, new findings from CDC research suggest that the single dose of treatment generally recommended for this scenario may be inadequate and that a doxycycline sustained release protocol (19 days) the CDC is developing might be more effective.
For advice on how to treat Lyme disease once you’ve been diagnosed, see “Beating Lyme Disease.”