The population of Lyme-carrying mice (not deer, as is widely assumed) is a prime indicator of how large the tick population, and corresponding number of Lyme disease cases, will be the following year. And in 2016, there was basically a mice plague in the Northeast, spelling trouble for the 2017 tick forecast.
Mice, which carry Lyme but are not affected by it, pass the pathogen to 95 percent of deer ticks (also called blacklegged ticks) that feed on them—a single mouse can have upwards of 50 ticks living on it. These ticks spread the disease around to deer, another big tick-carrying animal population, other animals, and, of course, humans and pets.
Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria that ticks transmit to humans’ bloodstream through a bite. Symptoms start out as a red skin rash, fever, headache, and fatigue, which are often treated successfully with antibiotics. If Lyme isn’t detected and treated early, it can spread to the muscles, joints, heart, and nervous system. (Want to know more? Here are seven things you need to know about Lyme disease and your chances of getting it.)
Cases of Lyme disease have tripled since the 1990s, and cases have turned up all across the US (although 95 percent of cases in 2015 occurred in twelve Northeastern states plus Wisconsin and Minnesota). Climate change is part of the reason Lyme is on the rise. Warmer winters make it easier for ticks to survive until spring, and a warmer climate overall means that ticks can expand their range of habitat. An increasing deer population plays a role, too.
But, as NPR reported, researchers also think we can blame some of our present day tick problems on our pilgrim forebears. When the first European settlers came to the US, they clearcut forests for farming and lumber. When that forest eventually grew back, it was segmented by roads, farms, and towns. This fragmentation benefited mice hugely because many of their predators—fox, coyotes, hawks, owls—rely on big forests for habitat. That means more mice to carry more Lyme disease and serve as hosts to more ticks.
1. Start by tick-proofing your property with these five ways to keep ticks out of your yard. Keep grass cropped short and create natural barriers from wood chips and gravel that ticks won’t like to cross.
2. Consider raising backyard chickens—they love to snack on ticks and you’ll have fresh eggs every morning.
4. Protect yourself when you’re out gardening, hiking, berry picking, or doing anything in or around wooded areas. Wearing long sleeves and pants to cover exposed skin is a good idea (though not always realistic depending on the temperature). You should also apply a tick repellent. The most popular heavy-duty tick repellent is DEET, but you can also find some powerful natural essential-oil based options.
5. Do a tick check when you get inside or when you take a shower. Pay attention to your armpits, scalp, ears, and groin area, all places ticks like to hide.
6. If you do find a tick or suspect you’ve been bitten, don’t panic. Not every blacklegged tick carries Lyme, and it takes 24-36 hours for the tick to begin transmitting the pathogen to you. Carefully use tweezers to remove the tick at the head, pulling out the mouth. You can kill the tick by soaking it in alcohol, and then save it in a baggie to be tested for Lyme if you live in an area where the disease is present. Monitor your body for any red rash, not just a bulls’ eye—with Lyme, a rash only shows up in the classic bull’s eye shape 20 percent of the time. If you notice a rash, or experience fever and flu-like symptoms get to the doctor right away. The earlier Lyme is treated, the lesser chance you’ll have lasting effects from the disease.
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