While most insects die in winter, ticks are relatively resistant to the cold. temperatures, and as the weather warms, they become increasingly active in the winter months, experts warn.
The pestiferous little bloodsuckers simply hide out on cold days and wait for temperatures to temporarily rise and then come out to wait for an opportunity to pounce on you and your precious pets.
Winters used to be colder, said Rafal Tokarz, an epidemiologist at the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.
“We now have periods of abnormally warm weather and they appear more frequently,” he said.
At the same time, with the more pleasant winter days, people go out more for walks with their dogs or with their family.
“The ticks will be there,” Tokarz said. “This contributes to the number of Lyme cases in the winter.”
In fact, emergency room visits for tick bites, which had been declining since the summer peak, are increasing in some parts of the United States, especially in the Northeast, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While tick bites are expected to decrease as freezing temperatures arrive, climate change is making things worse.
The government published the new National Climate Assessment report on Tuesday, predicting that most areas of the US will warm.
“So the risk of an adult tick finding us in winter will be higher,” said Richard Ostfeld, a tick expert at the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York.
Ticks that carry Lyme disease can last all winter, he said. “When it gets warm in March and April, you’ll see a second wave of activity” among ticks that haven’t yet found someone to bite, she added.
That means people have to worry all year about Lyme disease, which is transmitted by the bite of a blacklegged tick, experts say. Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne disease in the US, with between 30,000 and 500,000 cases each year.
Rising temperatures due to climate change have also caused ticks spreading towards new geographical areas.
When winter comes and temperatures drop, adult ticks that started showing up in the fall “get nice and comfortable under the leaf litter,” said Laura Goodman, an infectious disease researcher in the department of public and ecosystem health at the University of Michigan. Cornell.
“Depending on how well insulated they are, they may be perfectly fine,” he said. “As soon as it gets warmer or a little sunny, they come back again.”
The latest on tick-borne diseases
People should be aware that even if the overall temperature is low, there may be places where it feels warmer, Goodman said. “Thinking about the overall forecast doesn’t help much in this situation.”
Ticks are much tougher than you might think, he said. “We put them in the freezer in the laboratory and then we took them out and they are still alive. “You have to freeze them and dry them so they die.”
Ticks have a three-stage life cycle, and at each stage, they only take a “blood meal,” Tokarz said.
The first stage, the larva, is not of concern because the ticks have not contracted the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, officially known as Borrelia burgdorferi. The larvae become infected when they bite a mouse infected with the bacteria.
When they become nymphs, their next stage, infected ticks can transmit the disease to humans, their pets and other animals, which can also carry the bacteria.
When ticks become adults, they will have had two opportunities to contract Borrelia burgdorferi: from infected mice in their larval stage and from infected animals, often deer, in their nymph stage.
Ticks in the nymph stage can be difficult to detect because they are the size of a poppy seed, experts say. Adults are much larger and much easier to spot.
Studies with Topaz ticks on Long Island, New York, revealed that 15% to 20% of nymphs carried the bacteria, while 60% to 75% of adults carried it.
So the bad news is that if someone is bitten by an adult tick in the winter, they are much more likely to become infected and transmit the bacteria than a nymph in the spring and early summer.
The good news is that because adult ticks are much larger, they are easier to detect and remove before they transmit the bacteria that causes the disease.
“As long as the tick is removed quickly, the chances of infection are dramatically reduced,” Tokarz said.
While most Lyme cases are reported in the spring and summer, there are reports every month, he said.
How to avoid tick bites in colder climates
Experts suggest several steps people can take to avoid contracting Lyme in the winter months:
- When you return from a hike, or any other place where you may have picked up a tick, check it carefully.
- Use insect repellent.
- Wear lighter clothing if you are hiking so ticks can be easily spotted.
- If there’s any chance you may have picked up a tick, throw your clothes in the dryer rather than the washing machine because the dry heat will kill them.
If you find a tick attached to your skin, but never develop a rash, don’t assume you don’t have Lyme. Lyme testing can be complicated, but the CDC recommends using a combination of antibody tests, including an antibody immunoassay test like ELISA followed by an antibody immunoblot test like Western blot testing.
When it comes to pets, there are also steps you can take to protect them, including a Lyme vaccine for dogs and liquids for dogs and cats that can be put on the animal’s neck or pills that can be given to protect them.
Check your pets regularly, throughout the year, for ticks.
“You can never let your guard down completely,” Goodman said.