As Michigan enters another spring tick season, the overall outlook feels a bit bleak.
Over the past decade these biting arachnids have been expanding their range across the state, and while certain factors might make a particular year feel better or worse than others, more ticks begets more ticks — meaning, overall, the situation here will likely continue to get progressively more tick-y, experts say.
“In general, if the weather conditions are conducive, each of our years from now on will get worse just because the ticks have become really established in several places in Michigan now,” says Jean Tsao, an associate professor at Michigan State University who researches ticks and tick-borne illness. “All these mini populations are just going to continue to reproduce.”
While the general tick trajectory might seem distressing, year-to-year circumstances such as weather or rodent populations can affect tick activity, making some seasons feel better or worse than others. For example, Tsao says, last fall was great for nut-producing trees, which means mice, squirrels and other common tick host animals have been well fed and could have more successful springs, in turn providing ticks more food sources that could potentially reduce the number of tick bites on humans.
But with overall tick numbers increasing, there is concern for the corresponding rise in tick-borne illnesses. Some ticks carry pathogens that can sicken pets and humans; the black-legged tick, also known as the deer tick, can harbor the bacterium that causes Lyme disease, while a bite from the lone-star tick, whose numbers are on the rise in Michigan, can cause a person to become allergic to red meat.
Ticks become active in early spring after a period of winter dormancy, which is why this time of year, regardless of what the tick forecast may be, experts are reminding people to practice tick-bite prevention and to know what to do if someone gets bitten by a tick. Some of those tips are:
Try to avoid habitat that ticks prefer. Ticks generally prefer wooded and grassy locations. If you’re out for a hike, stick to the middle of trails and avoid tall grass, dense brush, and leaf litter.
Watch out in warmer months. Ticks are most active from April through September, though blacklegged ticks can be active any time there are multiple days in a row above 32 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Michigan’s peak Lyme disease transmission season occurs in June.
Use insect repellent, and/or treat your clothing and gear. The Centers for Disease Control recommends using Environmental Protection Agency-registered insect repellents, as well as products containing the insecticide permethrin, which can be used to treat boots, clothing, backpacks and other gear. As an alternative, permethrin pre-treated clothes are available through various retailers. An EPA guide to repellents can be found here.
Wear light-colored clothing, and cover up. If you are headed into tick territory, wear long sleeves and pants, and tuck your pant legs into your socks to keep ticks outside your clothes. Wearing lighter clothing makes it easier to find ticks if they are crawling on you.
Do a “tick check” after every outdoor outing. Before returning indoors or getting into your car, check your clothing, shoes and bags or other gear for ticks. Check children and pets for ticks, too. Look carefully: Adult-stage blacklegged ticks are sesame-seed sized, while nymph-stage blacklegged ticks, which are more likely to carry the Lyme disease-causing bacteria, are the size of a poppy seed.
If you are bitten by a tick: Remove the tick gently with fine-tipped tweezers, pulling the tick straight out without squeezing or twisting. If possible, snap a photo and save the tick in a Ziplock bag or lidded container, which can be helpful for ID purposes if you develop any symptoms of a tick-borne illness. Wash and disinfect the bite site, your hands, and your tweezers. Use an app like The Tick App or Tick Encounter to identify the species of tick, as different ticks carry different pathogens (and some carry none at all).
More details on tick safety can be found through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.