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How bad tick season is this summer may depend on where you live

Uptick in ticks this summer?
Uptick in ticks this summer? 03:55

Recent headlines suggest Americans are facing a particularly bad year when it comes to tick bites and tick-related illnesses, but how at risk you are may depend on where you live in the U.S.

What may be true in one part of the country -- or even one part of a county -- may not be true in another. Also, at this point in the summer, there are signs that Lyme disease, the most common tick-borne illness, may be occurring at roughly usual levels.

Here's a look at the tick situation so far this summer:

Why ticks are hazardous

Ticks are small, bloodsucking parasites that feed on animals but will bite people, too. Some are infected with germs that can cause illness, and they spread those germs when they bite. For people, the main worry is blacklegged ticks, which can spread Lyme disease and other illnesses. Nearly 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported to the federal government each year, but experts think it's underreported and the actual number may be more like 300,000.

Tick-borne viruses 01:44

Blacklegged ticks -- also called deer ticks -- were once found mainly in New England and pockets of the Midwest, but in recent years have been seen over a wider range.

When infected ticks bite humans, a "bull's-eye" rash can appear a few days later. It can be followed by severe headaches, neck stiffness and pain in the joints or other parts of the body. People usually recover quickly and completely when treated with antibiotics in the disease's early stages.

Not all blacklegged ticks are infected. Typically, about half of the adult ticks that come in for testing at a University of Massachusetts lab carry the bacteria, and that's about what the lab is seeing again this year, said Stephen Rich, a professor in the Department of Microbiology there. Rich runs a project that tests around 10,000 ticks each year sent in by people who were bitten.

The outlook this year

U.S. health officials say it's hard to even know how bad things are. There are monitoring projects in some states, or some parts of states, but there's not any comprehensive data to give a clear picture of what's happening nationally, noted Rebecca Eisen, a tick expert at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Concern about blacklegged ticks recently amped up, largely because of a prediction made by Richard Ostfeld of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, north of New York City. Ostfeld, a respected tick researcher, says blacklegged tick populations can explode based on a boom-and-bust cycle of acorns and white-footed mice, which ticks like to feed on. He says conditions over the last two years bode for a boom this year in the Northeast.

But he acknowledges, "It's too early to tell just how bad a year it is."

Thomas Mather, a University of Rhode Island researcher who is considered a pro at surveying for ticks, hasn't seen a jump in the blacklegged variety. Even if blacklegged ticks are up this year, a change in conditions -- like a dry heat wave -- could knock the population way down, he added.

Other tick-related illnesses

Other kinds of ticks can cause different diseases and health problems.

Perhaps the most unusual is caused by the Lone Star tick, which, despite its Texas-sounding name, is found mainly in the Southeast. Several years ago, doctors began noticing a sudden increase in meat allergies in people bitten by Lone Star ticks. Researchers concluded that the bloodsuckers are carrying a sugar humans don't have, which can trigger the bizarre immune system reaction that makes them allergic to red meat.

Blacklegged ticks can also spread other infections including the rare Powassan virus. Only 75 cases were reported across the nation in the last decade, but more doctors are looking for it and other tick illnesses and that may affect future counts, experts said.

How to protect yourself 

To protect against ticks:

  • Learn what kinds are common where you live
  • Avoid high grasses and cut your yard grass short.
  • Use EPA-registered repellent.
  • Check yourself and your children for ticks daily.
  • Wear long sleeves and pants.
  • Put clothes in the dryer for 10 minutes; the heat will kill any ticks.

How to remove a tick:

  • Use fine-tipped tweezers.
  • Put tweezers at the base of the tick, where the head is.
  • Pull upward.
  • Clean area with rubbing alcohol.

"It only takes one tick to make you sick," said Rich.

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