An unusually mild winter will likely mean an early start for this year’s tick season.
New York state entomologist Tim McCabe said that the warm weather won’t increase the number of ticks in the Capital Region, but it will lead to earlier tick activity. Ticks are less active when temperatures are in the 40s, but they are still capable of latching onto people. March has been fairly balmy already and will become even more so this week when temperatures are expected to hit the mid-70s. The season until the weather turns cold again.
The area is home to the deer tick and the dog tick.
Public health officials are mainly concerned with the deer tick because it can carry Lyme disease, a bacterial infection that, if untreated, can cause a number of health problems.
Peter Constantakes, a spokesman for the New York State Department of Health, said that although the mild temperatures are expected to increase tick activity, other factors, such as the lack of snow cover and moisture might also have an impact. Snow cover insulates ticks during cold weather, while the lack of snow suggests it might be drier than usual.
Deer ticks live in shady, moist areas and cling to tall grass, brush and shrubs. They also like lawns and gardens and McCabe said there tend to be pockets of them in sandy areas, such as the Albany Pine Bush. Ticks cannot jump or fly, and attach themselves to humans and animals only if they come into direct contact with them. The adult deer tick is small — about the size of a sesame seed.
“They look much larger once they start to feed,” McCabe said.
Since Lyme disease first became reportable in 1986, over 95,000 cases have been confirmed in New York state.
In 2010, there were 466 cases of Lyme disease in Albany County, seven in Fulton County, 23 in Montgomery County, 323 in Rensselaer County, 293 in Saratoga County and 14 in Schoharie County. These numbers were down from 2009, when the state saw about 9,279 cases. Last year, the state saw about 6,316 cases of Lyme disease.
A deer tick begins life as an egg, which hatches into a six-legged larva that will attach itself to a small animal host such as mouse, and feed on blood. After this feeding, the larva will drop to the ground and within three weeks it molts and becomes a nymph, which seeks out a slightly bigger host. After feeding, the nymph molts into an adult tick, which looks for larger hosts such as deer.
“All these processes are triggered by temperature,” said Chris Logue, executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schenectady County. “They’re going to happen a little sooner this year.”
He predicted that this would lead to earlier reports of tick activity, and a larger tick population next year.
“The weather conditions have been a little bizarre,” Logue said.
He said that the number of ticks reported in the county has gone up almost every year since he began working with Cornell almost 20 years ago. But he said it’s unclear whether this increase is caused by greater awareness about ticks, or an increase in the tick population.
The early symptoms of Lyme disease can be difficult to spot.
In the majority of cases, the first symptom is a rash that occurs at or near the site of the tick bite and can take on the appearance of a bulls-eye. That can appear between three days and one month after the tick bite, has a diameter of two to six inches and lasts for about three to five weeks.
The appearance of the rash will likely be accompanied by other symptoms, such as joint pain, chills, fever and fatigue, but these symptoms might be mild, not prompting medical attention.
But as the disease progresses, the symptoms will grow more serious and can include severe fatigue, a stiff neck, tingling or numbness in the arms and legs and facial paralysis.
The worst symptoms might not appear until weeks, months or even years after the tick bite, and can include severe headaches, arthritis, swelling of the joints and heart and central nervous system problems, according to the state Department of Health.
Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics.
The state Health Department also tracks several other tick-borne diseases, including babesiosis and ehrlichiosis, which are transmitted by the deer tick. The dog tick can carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever, a disease that can be fatal if it isn’t treated.
One tick that isn’t in the Capital Region, but will likely be soon, is the lone star tick, which also carries Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
McCabe said that until recently New York’s lone star tick population had been limited to Long Island, but that the tick appears to be moving up the Hudson River. “It’s doing what the [deer] tick did,” he said. “It’s not in Albany yet, but I expect it will be in less than 10 years.”
In recent years, the range of tick species has expanded and their numbers are increasing in upstate New York.
McCabe said it isn’t clear why this is happening. “We assume that some adaptation has taken place, or that a genetic bottleneck has been cleared,” he said. “It might be tied to a warming trend, but there are northern species that are moving south.”
Ticks are adapted for cold weather, McCabe said, noting that there are ticks in Canada.
“They’re very tolerant.”
The state provides tips for protecting against ticks, including wearing light-colored clothing with a tight weave, to make it easier to spot ticks, wearing enclosed shoes, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt, checking clothes and any exposed skin frequently for ticks while outdoors and doing a final, full-body tick check at the end of the day.