A deadly virus and changing environmental conditions have some experts worried that this summer could make for a worrisome tick season.
Many Americans are already familiar with the tick-borne bacterium that causes Lyme disease, but it’s the Powassan virus that is grabbing all the recent headlines.
The virus causes the relatively uncommon disease Powassan, which can lead to serious neurological impairment and death if untreated. Approximately 1 in 15 people who contract the disease die from it.
There have been 75 cases of Powassan reported in the past decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Details on Powassan
It can be difficult to detect Powassan at first.
The illness generally starts out with flu-like symptoms. Those milder symptoms eventually become severe, and include vomiting, seizures, and memory loss.
Thomas Mather, a professor at the University of Rhode Island, told Healthline that while it is important to be mindful of Powassan, it’s not the first time an obscure tick-borne disease has caused a scare, despite remaining relatively rare.
He noted instances of other less well-known tick-borne diseases, such as Colorado tick fever, that have occasionally been picked up by the media despite cases remaining infrequent and unrelated.
Nonetheless, citizens need to be more diligent in tick awareness.
“We know that we are in a ‘more ticks in more places’ world,” Mather said.
Cases of Lyme disease have tripled since the 1990s, but the CDC thinks that number is actually significantly higher, NPR reports.
Much of that is being driven by the blacklegged tick, sometimes called the deer tick.
“If the infection rate is high, or the transmissibility of the germ is high, those are all things that could be quite worrisome with a very broadly feeding tick like the blacklegged tick,” said Mather.
However, he cautioned that there is more nuance to understanding tick-borne illnesses.
“So many people generalize, and it runs into problems because they assume a tick is just a tick and it’s not that way,” he explained. “Different species of ticks — all have pretty much their own suite of germs that have pretty much adapted themselves to be propagated by that one type of tick.”
Thus, where you live and what kind of ticks inhabit that region will make you susceptible to only certain kinds of disease.
In fact, Lyme disease is so localized to particular areas of the United States that the CDC reports that 95 percent of cases occur within just 14 states located in the Northeast —like Maine and Vermont — and around the Great Lakes area in states like Wisconsin.
How bad will this season be?
Part of the worry this year has stemmed from different reports about the potential for a large tick population.
Epidemiologists Rick Ostfeld, and his wife, Felicia Keesing, have been studying Lyme disease for more than two decades, and they are predicting 2017 will be risky.
By measuring populations of wild mice — prominent carriers of Lyme disease — it is possible to predict an increased risk of tick-borne illness the following year.
So, with large populations of mice in 2016, they are predicting 2017 will yield a higher prevalence of Lyme disease.
However, Mather said that the narrative of an imminent tick boom can be oversimplified. Some outlets, including CNN, have reported that warmer winter conditions this past year will lead to increased tick populations.
“I’ve heard that story. I think it’s not completely correct, and it’s ripe for misinterpretation,” said Mather.
The issue, he said, is in understanding the lifecycle of a tick.
Those that live through the winter will be dead soon, and their larvae will not be mature enough to spread disease until 2018.
The ticks that people are seeing now “aren’t even going to make it to the summer. They will be lucky to make to Memorial Day,” he said.
Nonetheless, he hopes that the news will serve as an important reminder for people to get “tick smart,” as he puts it.
“People need to knock off this concern and say ‘I’ll take these news stories as the nudge that I needed to actually take some preventative action, finally,’” said Mather.
Basic steps to making yourself safer from ticks include performing a “tick check” after being outside.
First examine clothing — especially below the waistline — for ticks. Virus-carrying nymphs can be the size of poppy seeds.
Use tick-repellent sprays on clothing and shoes.
You can also, for a modest investment, have your clothes infused with insect-repellent technology through a company like Insect Shield.
For in-depth information and resources, Mather recommends checking out www.tickencounter.org.
“You can either get tick bitten or you can get tick smart,” he said.