Here’s Why There Are So Many Ticks This Summer, Say Experts
Tick populations are thriving in all 50 states. Experts explain why this is, and how to protect yourself from Lyme disease and other illnesses.
It’s already been an extra-eventful summer, between heat waves and locally acquired malaria. Some scientists are urging us not to lose sight of another tiny nuisance that can lead to significant problems.
That is, reports of tick-borne diseases rose 25% between 2011 and 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with the CDC suggesting actual disease rates are up to 10 times greater.
Tick populations are booming this summer, says Brian Leydet Jr., PhD, MPH, an assistant professor of epidemiology and disease ecology at the State University of New York (SUNY) College of Environmental Science and Forestry. “There are year-to-year variations, but in general, that population is increasing,” Dr. Leydet says. “We’re definitely seeing a lot more ticks this year.”
Says Jim Fredericks, PhD, a board-certified entomologist and senior vice president of public affairs at the National Pest Management Association (NPMA): “Despite the prevalence of ticks across the US, many people view them as just a summertime pest and aren’t aware of the true threats they pose to our health.”
It’s not just these greater numbers that worry experts, either. Ticks aren’t only flourishing deep in the woods but popping up in people’s yards. They’re also spreading to new geographic areas, different species are emerging, and there’s an uptick in previously uncommon diseases, Dr. Leydet explains—trends that increase your likelihood of tick exposure and, in turn, your risk for disease.
Why are there so many ticks this summer?
Ticks thrive in humid conditions, Dr. Leydet explains, “which we know is increasing with global climate change.” December 2022 research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) found that as global temperatures rise, humidity levels are rising even faster.
According to NPMA’s Spring & Summer 2023 forecast, these warm and wet conditions across the US are encouraging tick populations to boom. “Additionally, because winters have been mild in many areas, ticks are not dying off as they typically would,” Dr. Fredericks says. “This allows them to remain active longer or even year-round.”
Other factors are encouraging ticks to spread to new areas, too. “Changes in land use can result in a patchwork of forest and residential landscapes that ultimately provide new tick habitat,” says Griffin Dill, integrated pest management professional and Tick Lab coordinator and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Ne w habitats mean greater access to wildlife that can carry ticks to new areas, too.
Do all ticks carry disease?
Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever are the most commonly known pathogens transmitted by ticks, but this insect is actually associated with more than 65 diseases.
“I have infectious disease colleagues that are seeing Anaplasmosis cases every year now, which was not the case five years ago,” Dr. Leydet says. (Anaplasmosis is a bacterial infection that causes flu-like symptoms and can cause problems such as neurological issues in pets.) Another emerging risk is known as alpha-gal syndrome, an allergy to red meat associated with lonestar tick bites.
Lyme disease remains the greatest threat, however. “[It’s] been diagnosed in all 50 states and is more common than previously thought,” Dr. Fredericks says. “The CDC recently increased their annual estimate of people diagnosed and treated with the disease by 45% to nearly half a million.” One out of every two blacklegged (deer) ticks may be a pathogen carrier, says Nicole Chinnici, DHSc, director of the East Stroudsburg University’s Dr. Jane Huffman Wildlife Genetics Institute.
What to do if you get a tick bite
“If you get a tick on you, removing it as soon as possible is essential because most of these bacteria or protozoans take time to be transmitted,” Dr. Leydet says. In general, tick-borne diseases get into your bloodstream within 36 to 48 hours, and your risk drops significantly the earlier you get the tick off.
He says as soon as you notice a tick, take fine-tipped tweezers, grab the tick at the base where it’s connected to the skin, and pull. “I tell people to save it, put it in a Ziploc bag and throw it in your freezer.” That way, if you start to feel sick, it’ll help your doctor diagnose and treat you. Many areas with tick populations also have tick labs that offer testing. Dr. Chinnici says that if you have access to a nearby lab, sending it in can determine if you’ve been exposed to a pathogen and your risk for developing symptoms.
Dr. Leydet notes that many cases of tick-borne diseases are highly treatable. Some people develop a rash after a tick bite, but it might be helpful to understand that this doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve contracted disease. “Take a Sharpie marker and trace the edges of that rash—if the rash expands beyond the marker in the next day or two, then you’ve got to go to the doctor because it’s likely Lyme disease.” If flu-like symptoms develop within a week of a tick bite, that’s also a cue that the bite could be problematic.
In any case, if you believe you’ve sustained a tick bite, it might be wise to seek examination immediately.
How to protect yourself this summer
Ultimately, the easiest and most effective way to avoid tick-borne disease is prevention.
Wear proper clothing outdoors
Wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and closed-toe shoes, Dr. Fredericks says—and tucking pants into socks can minimize exposure even more. Wearing light-colored clothing also makes it easier to spot ticks.
Use extra protection
Using an insect repellent containing at least 20% DEET will protect your skin from ticks. There’s also a spray called permethrin you can use to treat clothing, Dr. Leydet says. You spray your clothing, wait for it to dry, and then it’s good for up to six washes. (Just be sure to keep it away from cats until it’s completely dry, he says.) Some clothing is sold pre-treated and lasts for up to 70 washes.
Do tick checks
“Carefully examine your entire body, including areas like the scalp, behind the ears, and under the arms,” Dill says. “Taking a shower and tumbling clothes in the dryer after outdoor activities can help remove unattached ticks.”
Don’t forget about pets
Ticks often hide on pets. They can turn up anywhere, but some common areas are in and around their ears, beneath the collar, along the legs, in between toes, and in and around the tail, Dr. Fredericks says. Feel for any small bumps within their fur and along their body.
Keep your yard maintained
Dr. Fredericks says you can eliminate potential tick habitats near your home by: Removing leaf litter, clearing overgrown grass and brush, eliminating potential rodent food sources, building fencing to keep wild animals out, storing firewood in an elevated space, and using materials like gravel or wood chips to create barriers that discourage tick migration.
Jim Fredericks, PhD, a board-certified entomologist and senior vice president of public affairs at the National Pest Management Association (NPMA)
Brian Leydet Jr, MPH, PhD, an assistant professor of epidemiology and disease ecology at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry
Griffin Dill, integrated pest management professional and Tick Lab coordinator and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension
Nicole Chinnici, DHSc, director of the East Stroudsburg University's Dr. Jane Huffman Wildlife Genetics Institute
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Trends in Reported Babesiosis Cases — United States, 2011–2019"
National Pest Management Association: "Bug Barometer Spring & Summer 2023"
PNAS: "Trends in surface equivalent potential temperature: A more comprehensive metric for global warming and weather extremes"