If you live in the Northeast or will be visiting there this year, take extra caution: Scientists are predicting an especially risky year for Lyme disease in the region. This severe bacterial infection causes rashes, headaches, fever, and long-term fatigue and can spread to your joints, heart, and nervous system.
Lyme disease threat is ramping up right now, will likely peak in May and June, and should last well into the fall, thanks to an upsurge in disease-carrying ticks. “We have reason to believe this will be a fairly large-scale phenomenon, covering thousands of square kilometers in New England and stretching down into the Mid-Atlantic,” says Rick Ostfeld, senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.
Ostfeld, a disease ecologist who’s been studying black-legged ticks for decades, bases his forecast on the enormous mouse outbreak that hit the Hudson Valley last summer. “In August, we had the highest mouse count in 25 years,” he says. “When there are lots of mice in the forest, the baby ticks hatching in late summer are much more likely to encounter a mouse than other animals they’d otherwise feast on. Mice are breeding grounds for Lyme and are very efficient at transmitting it to ticks, which then bite and infect humans and dogs.”
Mice counts have proven to be a reliable predictor of risk in Lyme-heavy regions, where the landscape is typically dominated by deciduous forest with lots of oak trees.
Regardless of tick population fluctuations and weather and ecologic changes that can also affect disease risk, there are nearly 30,000 confirmed cases of Lyme each year, says Katie Fowlie, spokesperson for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The rate has tripled over the last 20 years,” she adds. “As reforestation has occurred and deer populations have rebounded, the blacklegged tick is much more widespread today than two decades ago.”
According to Fowlie, 14 states account for over 95 percent of reported cases: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin. “Nevertheless, areas where Lyme disease occurs are expanding outward into neighboring states, so take precautions when you head outdoors,” she says.
To cut your odds of contracting Lyme — and other less common but rapidly increasing tick-borne diseases like babesiosis and anaplasmosis — the CDC recommends avoiding areas with thick vegetation, high grass, and leaf litter as much as possible. Also hike or jog in the center of trails. And whenever you’re near vegetation, including just hanging out in your yard, cover all exposed skin with an insect repellent proven to ward off ticks. The most effective is DEET, which despite its bad rap, is actually very safe, health-wise. A newer option, picaridin is almost as effective as DEET, says Ostfeld, but it’s odorless and won’t disintegrate fishing line or melt your sunglasses.
You should also treat your shoes, boots, socks, boots, pants, tents, and sleeping bags with permethrin, or buy clothing and gear pretreated with the repellent. Hop in the shower as soon as possible after spending time outside to give you the best shot at washing away or finding ticks before they bite.
Finally, don’t forget about your dog. Treat pups regularly all year long with products that repel and kill ticks. “The risk for dogs runs all the way through the fall and even winter,” Ostfeld says. “People get lulled into thinking they don’t need to worry in January, but anytime the temperature rises above the mid-30s, ticks activate and you need to watch out.” He says the late-season ticks tend to be large adults, which you’re more likely to feel crawling on you but your dog may not notice or not be able to swipe away on his own.
“I am hoping that our predictions get out to enough people who then change their behaviors outdoors,” Ostfeld says. “I’d love to be proven wrong — for the risk we expect to not translate into more Lyme disease cases.”