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Tick time: Tick populations thriving this spring

Deer tick | Jim Occi/submitted

Don’t let the scurrying fool you. Ticks aren’t in a hurry to go anywhere. By some calculations, they’ve been around for about 110 million years. But even though there’s no imminent crisis, they certainly can get under your skin.

For a variety of reasons, tick populations are thriving this spring. The ailments they can bring, including Lyme disease, haven’t yet appeared in significant numbers locally — but there is a good chance they will. And it’s not too late to avoid being sickened by the pesky parasites.

Edward Hospital spokesman Keith Hartenberger said the Naperville medical center has had “a few folks come in with ticks … maybe one positive for Lyme disease, but not a trend or anything noticeable.”

And although DuPage and Will County public health officials similarly report no confirmed cases yet this year, they could outpace last year’s combined total of 52 diagnoses before summer ends.

“One of the real problems with Lyme disease is that it very often is not recognized until it advances a little bit, so early in the year, we don’t hear of activity, but we know the ticks are there,” said Will County Health Department spokesman Vic Reato, who stresses the importance of awareness and prevention. “Many times, because Lyme disease symptoms are kind of general, sometimes they’re not recognized for what it is.”

The trademark bulls eye-like rash of Lyme disease is missing in one out of three people infected with it, so the illness can be mistaken for a variety of other conditions, including the flu. Along with the rash, symptoms might include fever, muscle aches and fatigue, and they can begin to appear anywhere from three days to a month after a bite from an infected tick. The illness usually responds to antibiotics. If left untreated, Lyme disease can develop into aseptic meningitis, facial palsy, cognitive impairment or heart abnormalities.

Conditions have been ripe this year for a tick population boom, which many experts believe is a side effect of climate change. Their numbers have risen over the past several years, with relatively mild winters. The unusually large volume of snow seen in the season just past, however, provided an insulating blanket against the very cold temperatures that otherwise would have triggered substantial tick die-off.

Other factors that contribute to an increase in ticks include a reduction in the use of insecticides, a push for preservation of open space, and an increase in white-tailed deer populations.

Ticks prefer moist, shaded areas, but they also often nestle into the growth in open grasslands.

“A lot of people think you have to spend time deep in the forest to get Lyme disease, but that’s not necessarily so,” Reato said.

If you do find a tick on your skin, scalp or pet, it’s best to remove it promptly, ideally by using pointed tweezers, followed by a swabbing with alcohol to help prevent infection. And don’t panic.

A tick doesn’t immediately infect its host, and not all tick bites bring disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only the blacklegged tick indigenous to the Northeast and upper Midwest can cause Lyme disease, and not all are carriers. Still, the blacklegged variety has been spreading geographically in recent decades and is being associated with an increasing number of illnesses in addition to Lyme disease. The National Science Foundation reports that tick nymphs infected during the larval stage by white-footed mice, eastern chipmunks and short-tailed shrews pose the greatest risk for transmission of the Lyme bacterium to humans. White-footed mice are found in nearly all forested areas, even very small ones, according to NSF researchers.

The pest must be attached for at least 24 hours before it can transmit the infection, so it’s best to check people and pets daily if there is a possibility they’ve been exposed.

“If you can get it out as quickly as possible, it’s going to do you good,” Reato said.

Prevention is key to avoiding the misery of Lyme disease when going into a potential tick habitat. Even on a very warm day, it is advisable to wear long sleeves, long pants tucked into socks, shoes, head covering and insect repellent. The weeds at the edges of walking paths can harbor pests, so hikers should remain in the middle of established trails.

More information about tick-borne diseases can be found at www.idph.state.il.us. For a video demonstration of the proper removal of a tick, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wotB38WrRY&feature=youtu.be.

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