Experts: Hungrier Ticks Expected in 2012

By Leah Zerbe

Acorns, not a warm winter, are the driving force behind this year's higher than normal tick populations.

It doesn't take a climate scientist to notice that this winter was unusually warm. In areas that are usually clobbered with snow, plow trucks remained dormant in garages. Robins returned much earlier than we're used to, daffodils flashed their yellow smiles earlier than ever, and spring allergies set records, causing sniffles and itchy eyes during the first week of February—in the middle of winter!

All of these uncommon trends are causing many people to predict a much more malicious tick season this spring, summer, and fall. Although they're right—disease-carrying ticks will be on the prowl in a big way this year—one expert says it's not the strangely mild winter, but rather, acorn numbers, that will lead to a spike in tick bites in 2012.

The number of acorns that drop from oak trees varies from year to year. In 2010, acorns were bountiful, creating a spike in ticks' preferred host, the white-footed mouse. "We had a boom in acorns, followed by a boom in mice. And now, on the heels of one of the smallest acorn crops we've ever seen, the mouse population is crashing," explains Richard S. Ostfeld, PhD, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York.

"This spring, there will be a lot of Borrelia burgdorferi–infected black-legged ticks in our forests looking for a blood meal," he adds.

With mice in decline, they're looking for something—or someone—else to latch onto…like us.

Read More: Off-the-Charts Anxiety: Is a Tick Bite Making You Nuts?

Black-legged ticks feed three times in a lifetime, as larvae, nymphs, and adults. This year, a large chunk of the tick population will consist of nymphs looking for a meal. The last time a surplus year (2006) was followed by a dismal acorn crop (2007), nymphal tick numbers hit an all-time high. Expect 2012 to be another record-setting year.

Ticks carry not just Lyme disease, but also the pathogens that cause babesiosis, anaplasmosis, and bartonella. Tests to detect these diseases can be woefully inaccurate, raising the risk of chronic infection.

Lyme disease is often characterized by a bull's-eye rash, but the reality is only about half of the people infected show that telltale symptom. Depending on the person and strain of bacterium, symptoms could range from sleeplessness and anxiety to acid reflux and chronic pain, among others.

To protect yourself from contracting a tick-borne disease:

1. If you've spent time outside—even in your yard—take a shower as soon as you go into the house. Research has shown this tactic to be very effective in knocking ticks off of your body before they can attach and transmit disease.

2. If you live near woods or a meadow, install a strip of gravel between your yard and those habitats to cut back on the mice population in your yard.

3. Know the early symptoms. Only about half of people bitten by a tick develop a bull's-eye rash, and many people don't recall being bitten at all; some notice migrating rashes or red or black-and-blue splotches shortly after being bitten. Other early Lyme symptoms sometimes pop up a few days to a month after infection and include fatigue, fever, and chills.

If the disease becomes more established in your body, it could cause cardiac and neurological problems. If you think you've recently been infected with Lyme, ask your doctor to perform blood tests. Doctors should first test to rule out other conditions with similar symptoms. If your test results are negative, have the tests repeated about six weeks later, nonetheless. If the results are still negative and you still suspect Lyme, you may want to see a doctor who specializes in treating Lyme aggressively. Check with local Lyme disease support groups to find doctors who have a good track record in treating Lyme in your area.

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Note: The Rodale Research Feed features new research findings that may include preliminary or unconfirmed results. Check with a healthcare provider, or an appropriate advisor you trust, before making any significant changes based on these reports.

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