Ticks Are This Summer's Biggest Health Risk

Credit: Robert Körner

Getting a bug bite that hurts and itches is a nuisance, but getting a bug bite that hurts, itches, and gives you a disease is what summertime nightmares are made of. In the past several years, mosquito-borne illnesses like West Nile Virus and Zika have made headlines due to record-breaking numbers of infections, causing justified alarm for travelers and those of us who like to spend the majority of our summer outside. This year however, doctors and scientists are warning to watch out for a different disease-carrying pest: ticks.

This summer is projected to be one of the worst for tick-borne illnesses in years, thanks to a mild winter and a wet, months-long spring across the country, tick populations are thriving in record numbers. Dry, hot weather keeps the insects at bay, and so far, there hasn’t been much of that. As tick populations have risen, so has the number of infections. 

Ticks are more often associated with Lyme disease, which causes flu-like symptoms, joint pain, and weakness. Most people who are diagnosed with Lyme disease make a complete recovery with appropriate antibiotic treatment. However, the POW virus — which is also tick-borne and seeing increasing case numbers — is a potentially fatal virus that is sparking new levels of concern.

The POW virus, or Powassan virus, is fatal in only 10 to 15 percent of cases, but currently there is no known treatment for the illness. Between 2007 and 2015, 77 people were diagnosed with the disease, with eight fatalities. And while those may be numbers that keep the odds in favor of staying POW-free, the virus is carried by the same tick that carries Lyme disease — the blacklegged tick (also known as the deer tick). With the numbers of ticks being so high, the chances of coming into contact with an infected bug are rising, too. 

POW virus causes mild symptoms within one to four weeks of the initial bite. Symptoms include fever, headache, weakness, vomiting, Encephalitis (swelling of the brain), and Meningitis (swelling of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord). If the POW virus isn’t caught early on and reaches severe stages, it can cause long-term neurological symptoms such as headaches and memory loss. Dr. Jennifer Lyons, chief of the Division of Neurological Infections and Inflammatory Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, stated in an interview with CNN that a prognosis of POW is grim. “About 15 percent of patients who are infected and have symptoms are not going to survive,” she said. “Of the survivors, at least 50 percent will have long-term neurological damage that won’t be resolved.”

And while no one wants to take the chance of coming down with one of these illnesses, locking yourself inside until September just isn’t an option. That’s why you can follow these tips to stay safe:

· Wear long-sleeve shirts, long pants, and tall socks when in forests, tall grass, or the woods.

· Check out this guide from the Environmental Protection Agency to find out which bug repellent is best for the area in which you live.

· Apply tick and mosquito repellent that's at least 20-percent DEET or higher to skin, according to product instructions.

· Give yourself a full-body check to find any ticks that may be on you after being outdoors.

· Remove ticks from your body with a pair of tweezers by clamping the tweezers as close to the tick’s head as possible, pulling the tick out by pulling it straight back, and using a antibacterial spray or rubbing alcohol to sanitize the bite area immediately after removal.

· Throw your clothes in the dryer for 10 minutes after returning from the outdoors to kill any ticks attached to clothing.

· Take a shower after spending a day outdoors.

· Wear clothes and use tents and other camping gear that is pre-treated with permethrin, which kills ticks on contact. You can also treat clothes yourself by buying permethrin here.