Warmer weather and sunshine beckon us outdoors with the promise of spring’s return, but we aren’t the only ones thinking of shaking off the dormancy of winter. While we don’t usually associate them with early spring, ticks can become active during warm spells as they search for a host to feed on to continue their life cycle. And where a tick is active, there is the possibility of tick-borne disease.
To understand the measures we need to take to prevent tick-borne diseases, we need to understand the ticks bearing those diseases. Minnesota is home to a dozen or so species of ticks, of which only three are vectors, or carriers, of disease that affect humans.
The black-legged tick, or deer tick, is the most common disease spreader according to the Minnesota Department of Health, about 1 in 3 adult black-legged ticks and 1 in 5 black-legged tick nymphs is infected with the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. American Dog Ticks, also called wood ticks, are common but don’t have the same rates of disease nor do they carry Lyme. American dog ticks may spread Rocky Mountain spotted fever and tularemia. Lone star ticks, whose very name indicates that they aren’t from around here, can spread diseases such as ehrlichiosis and tularemia but are rarely found in Minnesota.
Ticks need blood meals in order to continue their life cycle, so the times that they are most active coordinate with the times that they are undergoing the greatest change. In early spring, warming temperatures can trigger activity in both nymph and adult blacklegged ticks. Larva are likely to pick up the bacterium that cause Lyme disease during spring as they usually feed on small mammals or birds for their initial meal. Nymphs and adults that carry the bacterium can then pass it to their subsequent hosts, presenting a risk to humans and larger mammals.
Preventing tick bites is generally a matter of preparation and observation. By preparing for time spent outside with proper apparel, footwear, and repellants and following up outdoor activity with a thorough investigation of ones body and clothing, it is relatively easy to prevent a tick bite.
Wearing long sleeves and long pants in light colors makes it easier to spot ticks before they access your skin. Tucking pant legs into socks and applying appropriate repellant sprays according to package instructions can further limit the likelihood of tick bites. After being outdoors it is essential to remove all clothing and check it and your body for any ticks that may have climbed aboard. Clothing can be washed and dried on the hottest setting to kill any ticks, or, if a laundry facility is unavailable, clothing can be sealed in a large plastic tote and left in the sun to “bake” for several hours. A thorough self-check for ticks should include all warm, moist areas of the body including underarms and groin areas.
By following some basic safety guidelines and performing a thorough self-check after spending time outdoors in the preferred habitat of ticks, it is relatively easy to prevent any tick bite, regardless of the ticks’ disease-carrying status.