It’s a beautiful May day, so you’ve packed a picnic lunch and headed to a state park for an early summer hike.
Just as you take those first few steps into the tall grass, you feel it, a tickling sensation moving down your arm. And then you see it – a tick ready to make a meal out of you.
It’s par for the course when spending time outdoors during those warm Indiana months. But in recent years, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention warns, a tick bite can bring more than just a grossed-out feeling.
Between 2004 and 2016, the frequency of diseases spread by ticks and mosquitoes has tripled, according to a study released by the CDC this month. Hoosiers have reported 673 infections from mosquito bites and 3,685 cases from ticks during the 13-year span.
“Since the late 1990s, the number of reported cases of Lyme disease in the United States has tripled, and the number of counties in the northeastern and upper Midwestern United States that are considered high risk for Lyme disease has increased by more than 300 percent,” said Rebecca Eisen, research biologist at the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases.
EATING UP INDIANA
West Nile is the most common virus spread by mosquitoes in the continental United States and Indiana, according to the CDC.
The virus is transmitted to humans by a mosquito that has first bitten an infected bird. A person who is bitten by an infected mosquito may show symptoms from 3 to 15 days after the bite.
Culex mosquitoes, which can carry the West Nile virus, breed in ditches, open septic systems, discarded tires, unused wading pools and other containers, particularly if they are in the shade. In urban areas, thousands of Culex larvae and pupae can be found in many sewer catch basins, according to the Indiana State Department of Health.
When it comes to ticks, Hoosiers should be most concerned about Lyme disease. Confirmed cases in the state have risen steadily, from just 26 in 2006 to 127 in 2016, according to the CDC.
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by the bite of a deer tick or a western black-legged tick that is infected with Lyme disease.
About 80 percent of the people treated for Lyme disease have a skin rash that appears within a few days to a month after the tick bite, according to the ISDH. The rash begins as a small red area at the site of the bite that gradually enlarges, leaving a clear center with a swollen outer ring.
Flu-like symptoms, including fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, swollen lymph nodes and stiff neck might accompany the rash. If left untreated, Lyme disease can lead to joint, heart and nervous system problems.
Though the CDC received reports of a little more than 30,000 cases of Lyme Disease nationwide last year, some studies suggest the actual number of people treated for the disease is more likely about 300,000.
“One explanation for this trend is that the ticks that can transmit Lyme disease have expanded their geographic range and are now being found in places they weren’t seen 20 years ago,” Eisen said. “This makes it more important than ever for people to take steps to prevent tick bites, particularly during the spring and summer when ticks are most active.”
Indiana ticks can also transmit a variety of other diseases, such as ehrlichiosis (a bacterial illness that causes flu-like symptoms) and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. In 2017, Indiana reported more than 250 cases of tick-borne illness.
MORE TO WORRY ABOUT
The CDC study also identified nine new diseases that were either discovered or newly introduced in the country. During the study’s time frame, Chikungunya and Zika viruses caused outbreaks in the United States for the first time, and seven new tick-borne germs were found to infect people in the U.S.
Global warming is an important cause of the surge, according to the lead author of a study published May 1 in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
“We’re seeing a steady increase and spread of tick-borne diseases, and an accelerating trend of mosquito-borne diseases introduced from other parts of the world,” said Dr. Lyle Petersen, director of the CDC's Division of Vector-Borne Diseases.
An increase in oversees trade and travel is also to blame, as disease-carrying people and animals move across borders, introducing the pathogens to local ticks and mosquitoes.
New diseases aren’t just coming from the south.
Cases of Powassan virus, named after the town of Powassan, Ontario, where it was first reported in the 1950s, are also on the rise in the most northern states. Though extremely rare and not yet reported in Indiana, the disease can cause swelling of the brain. About 1 in 10 cases are fatal.
Adult ticks prefer areas of tall grass, brush or shrubs where they can jump onto passing mammalian hosts, including humans.
It you're heading to wooded areas with high grass, wear shoes covering the entire foot, tall socks, long pants and long-sleeved shirts, the ISDH recommends. It’s best to wear light-colored clothing and a hat, enabling you to more easily spot dark-colored bugs.
Once back indoors, check closely for ticks on clothing, gear, pets and skin, health officials say. Drying clothes on high heat for 30 minutes will kill ticks; showering can help remove unattached ticks.
“Ticks usually need to be attached for several hours to a couple of days before they can transmit disease, so quickly finding and removing a tick can help keep you safe from disease,”said Jennifer Brown, a state public health veterinarian.
Application of an insect repellent with DEET is recommended by the state health department for clothes and exposed skin. A concentration of from 10 percent to 30 percent DEET is recommended, but it should not be used on infants.
Ticks can be safely removed by using tweezers to grasp the tick close to the skin and then pulling outward with steady and even pressure, according to Brown.
After the tick is removed, the area should be washed thoroughly. The tick should be discarded by submerging it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag or container, wrapping it tightly in tape or flushing it down the toilet.
Ticks should never be crushed with the fingernails, Brown said.
Anyone who becomes ill after finding an attached tick should see a medical professional immediately. Tick-borne diseases can be treated with antibiotics, and prompt diagnosis can help prevent complications.