When local temperatures spiked up to record levels in the 60s and 70s in late February, people got themselves outside like it was spring, and Holly Ahern had some then bring her active deer ticks — the kind that transmit Lyme disease through their bites — that they’d found on themselves.
“It wasn’t just a few,” said Ahern, an associate professor of microbiology at SUNY-Adirondack in Queensbury and an expert on Lyme disease. “It’s a little alarming.”
While winter has historically been a time when the ticks were considered inactive, researchers say a warming climate could change that, and increase the season for getting Lyme disease — a treatable but potentially chronic condition that was barely known outside areas near the Long Island Sound four decades ago, but has since spread widely and continues to do so.
The federal Centers for Disease Control says there were 30,000 confirmed cases reported nationally in 2015, the majority in the Northeast. New York state had 4,314 suspected or confirmed cases, third nationally behind Pennsylvania and New Jersey. But the CDC estimates the true number of Lyme infections each year is probably closer to 300,000, since many cases aren’t confirmed by lab testing.
“May is the month generally associated with Lyme season, but that should probably be backed up, in years like this, to March,” said Ahern, a scientific adviser to Project Lyme, a national education and advocacy group.
Lyme cases began rising in the Capital Region around the year 2000. The bacteria appears to be established in all local counties, and in the last decade Lyme cases have even been found in Adirondack counties. Statistics show a wide fluctuation in the number of cases reported in each county each year. The CDC tracks Lyme cases by patient county of residence, but there’s no guarantee patients contracted the disease in their home county. A Saratoga Springs resident, for example, could be bitten by an infected tick on Cape Cod, but not be diagnosed until he reported home.
Reported cases of Lyme disease in 2001, top, and 2015. (CDC)
“Lyme disease crept its way off Long Island and has moved slowly north and west,” said Bryon Backenson, a research scientist at the New York State Department of Health who has been studying Lyme since 1991. “The leading band is now between Syracuse and Rochester. It has been found just south of Plattsburgh.”
He said warm weather could mean an earlier tick season.
“Ticks tend to come out any time it’s above 40 degrees or so,” Backenson said. “There have been times over the last few weeks when it got up to 60 or 70 degrees when we’ve gotten phone calls about ticks, finding ticks on dogs and that sort of thing. If it continues to be warm the tick season could be moved up two or three weeks.”
“If we get a giant cold snap in the next couple of weeks, it could have an effect,” he said. “Once ticks start coming out, people have to start thinking about it.”
Last week, National Public Radio reported on researchers at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Dutchess County who believe 2017 could a bad year — a “forbidding forecast” — for Lyme disease, based a large acorn crop in 2015 leading to an increase in the white-footed mouse population. Feeding on infected mice is a primary way ticks pick up Lyme, babesiosis and anaplasmosis, all serious diseases that the ticks can then spread to humans, according to the Cary Institute.
While the role of mice in infecting ticks is uncontested, researchers contacted by The Daily Gazette are skeptical about making general predictions about Lyme based on mouse populations.
“You’re never entirely sure what may end up happening,” said Backenson, noting that predictions in 2012 that a mild winter would increase the tick population didn’t pan out — the winter was so dry ticks died from dehydration.
Freezing doesn’t kill ticks; they simply go dormant during the winter. Heat and dryness, however, can be deadly to them, the researchers all said. Tiny nymph ticks bite in the fall, and by spring are somewhat larger and easier to see adult ticks, which are more likely to be infected. In general, 25 to 30 percent of adult ticks have the Lyme infection, in the consensus of researchers.
Stephen Rich, director of the Laboratory of Medical Zoology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, also cautioned against generalized predictions — a small sampling in one part of New York doesn’t say whether large numbers of mice will be found elsewhere, and dire predictions overlook the steps people can take for themselves to reduce their risk of being bitten.
“Readers in Schenectady should know that once the snow has melted, adult deer ticks will be actively searching for hosts,” Rich, who is also on the Project Lyme advisory board, said in an email. “Locally, they may see a few percentage more (or few percentage less) ticks than they have in previous years, but to paraphrase my colleagues at Cape Cod Cooperative Extension, it only takes one bite to change your life.”
People doing things outdoors should be aware that ticks aren’t just found in the woods — they live in yards, bushes and leaf piles.
“After gardening or raking leaves, the kind of activities people do in early spring, they should check themselves,” Backenson said.
Wearing light-colored clothing and reducing exposed skin surfaces remain good advice, as does using repellents. Throwing outdoor clothes into a clothes dryer for just five or 10 minutes is enough to kill ticks on clothing. Ticks typically travel on the body for a significant amount of time before finding a place to bite, meaning a tick check and a shower also reduces the risk.
A tick takes at least 36 hours to transmit Lyme bacteria after it latches onto its host, so there’s time to remove a tick. The state Health Department has a video on how to remove a tick properly on its website and YouTube channel.
“Really the best way is to use a pair of fine-pointed tweezers,” Backenson said. “The video we put together is two minutes long, and explains exactly how to do it.”
Most of the time, a case of Lyme first manifests with fever and a rash, which can be in a bull’s-eye shape. If is identified and treated early with antibiotics, most people have no lingering effects, according to conventional medical thinking.
“Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial for a full recovery,” said Heather Hearst, a spokeswoman for Project Lyme.
But untreated cases or cases treated only in later stages can result in long-term joint, neurological and heart damage, and some researchers believe the risk and severity of the disease is often understated, because it is often misdiagnosed or not identified early.
“It is complex, hard to diagnose, difficult to treat, life-altering disease for the majority of people who contract it,” said Ahern.
A number of websites, including the Health Department’s and projectlyme.org, offer information on how to reduce or prevent exposure.