It’s tick season, so when you go hiking through the brush or let your dog off her leash in wooded areas, remember that you’re not alone. Unbeknownst to the carefree labrador or beagle, ticks hide on foliage, waiting for the opportunity to drop onto tufts of fur and soon latch their jaws onto the skin. Large and medium-sized mammals of all kinds are on the menu for ticks.
Both a fascinating and frightening phenomenon, tick populations are on the rise in the U.S. and their territories are expanding. Though small, ticks are capable of killing large mammals as large as moose. We might feel like victims of their creeping reach, but we are all responsible since climate change contributes to these shifts.
“Warmer temperatures are making cold places suitable habitats for ticks, so new places are having Lyme disease cases, and endemic areas are having more cases than the average,” said Edson Severnini, assistant professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College, and co-author of a new study that predicts the incidence Lyme disease will rise around 21 percent by mid-century.
Here are several important reasons why we need to beware of ticks.
There’s an invasive tick species on the rise
The Asian long-horned tick came to New Jersey in 2017 and feasted on an unsuspecting Icelandic sheep. This tick species, native to Japan, China and Korea is the first known invasive tick species to the United States in 80 years. So far it has been found in nine states in the east and midwest.
The scary thing was that the sheep was completely infested with thousands of ticks. This is likely because of the tick’s strangely independent breeding habits. A female Asian long-horned tick can reproduce without a mate by cloning itself. Females can lay up to 2000 eggs at a time.
The tick is known to feast on humans, but so far, no cases of disease related to the ticks have been reported in North America. However, in Asia, they can carry a virus that causes fever. Scientists are especially worried for livestock, because the ticks tend to spread faster on animals that live in close proximity to one another.
These are highly adaptable creatures that live in temperate climates. Scientists worry that they could spread throughout the eastern states and to parts of the Northwest where the climate is suitable for them.
Lyme disease-carrying ticks have doubled their range
The black-legged tick in the eastern states and the western black-legged tick in the Pacific coastal region are the two tick species that carry Lyme disease, which impacts humans. These ticks have doubled their range in less than two decades with most of the growth spreading in the east and the midwest. However, they have also been found in all fifty states and in half of all counties across the U.S.
Lyme disease is a bacterial disease spread by ticks, and it is the fifth most reported disease. To transmit the disease, ticks have to be attached to the skin for 36 to 48 hours. Symptoms can be delayed up to a month after you’ve been bitten by a tick, though. Often accompanied by a rash, the disease will cause fever, headache, muscle and joint pain and swollen lymph nodes. People suffering from Lyme disease can treat it with antibiotics.
Oddly, 95% of all Lyme disease cases have occurred in just 14 northeastern and midwestern states. If you’re hiking in these regions, be particularly careful to protect yourself from ticks and check yourself carefully after hiking.
Meat allergy-causing ticks
Another kind of tick that is spreading north from the southeastern states can leave you with a meat allergy. This is the Lone star tick, which is linked to the alpha-gal meat allergy. It can cause people to have an allergic reaction from all red meat including pork and dairy. The first evidence linking the allergy to the tick was discovered just ten years ago and the number of known cases has now risen to about 5,000.
How to prevent human tick bites
While no one should fear the outdoors because of ticks, it is good to take precautions that will improve your chances of remaining tick free.
Clothing: Cover your skin with a hat, pants and long sleeves, and if you don’t feel too nerdy, tuck your pants into your socks while hiking. Wear light colors and avoid shoes like sandals that leave your skin exposed.
Repellent: Natural insect repellent is a good way to give yourself added protection.
Avoid the brush: Whenever you hike through thick foliage, you’re more at risk.
After the hike: If you worry that you’ve carried ticks back home with you, check your body for ticks. Pay close attention to the scalp, groin, armpits and other hiding places. Bathe in hot water and dry your clothes on high heat.
For more information on what to do if you find a tick on your body, check the tick removal tips from the Center for Disease Control.