istockphoto.com / StevenEllingson

With warm weather and outdoor fun on the horizon, it’s time to start preparing for tick season—and this year’s may be a doozy. Researchers at Rutgers believe last year’s excessive rain and mild winter may mean an upsurge in Lyme disease-transmitting ticks this year. Here’s what you need to know.

Ticks in New Jersey

According to the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, there are three types of ticks that transmit diseases in NJ, including the blacklegged (aka deer) tick, the lone star tick and the American dog tick. “While Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne disease in New Jersey, there are other diseases that are carried by deer ticks, like anaplasmosis and babesia,”  NJ State Epidemiologist, Dr. Tina Tan, told New Jersey Family. Additional diseases include ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Powassan virus.

The NJ Department of Health tracks Lyme disease incidence rates, most recently in 2017. According to an interactive indicator map of Lyme disease by county, there were nearly 5,100 cases across the state. Warren and Hunterdon had the highest number of cases with 368 and 355 cases per 100K people, likely because of the rural terrain. Sussex had the third highest with 234 and Morris the fourth with 130. “This is likely related to these counties having woods and grassy habitats that facilitate ticks and deer,” says Tan. All other NJ counties were in the double digits ranging from 10 in Hudson to 84 in Somerset.

In rural and suburban areas, ticks can become a pervasive problem. For instance, the first East Asian Tick to ever be found in the entire US was discovered in Hunterdon County back in 2017. This type of tick, though there’s no evidence the one found harmed anyone, is known for carrying a virus that’s lethal to 15 percent of its bite victims, according to the CDC.

Year to year differences in Lyme disease incidence are normal. “We expect variations in Lyme disease numbers reported every year. In the last 10 years, cases ranged from 3,000 to 5,000 (2009 had close to 5,000 cases),” says Tan. “Variation could be due to how many ticks are around during a given year, which is dependent on weather conditions and presence of host animals. Other factors include health care reporting and testing, and public health case investigation practices. In 2017, we revised our reporting form, which might have contributed to better data collection.”

What Is Lyme Disease?

Lyme disease is an illness caused by an infection transmitted via tick bite, usually by deer ticks (and never from person to person). Ticks become infected by feeding on mammals like meadow voles, mice and deer. If a person is infected and doesn’t get treatment, serious complications can occur, according to the NJ Department of Health.

Anyone who’s outdoors often between April and October is at high risk for contracting a tick-borne illness. If a tick is removed from the skin within 48 hours, risk decreases; though it’s possible for a tick to carry more than one tick-borne disease at a time.

Found a Tick? Here’s How to Remove It

Ideally, you’ll find a tick before it has attached itself to your skin. If it’s already attached, use tweezers to grasp it by the head and pull until it’s out, says the NJ Department of Health. Once it’s out, disinfect the bite (and your tweezers) with alcohol, then wash your hands with soap and hot water. Showering can also help you find and wash ticks off.

Whatever you do, never squeeze, twist, burn or apply anything to an attached tick, as fluid from the tick can enter your skin. Dispose of the tick by putting it in a sealed container or plastic bag, then throwing it in the trash. Don’t flush it town the sink or toilet, either—ticks can live in water.

Symptoms of Lyme Disease

If you’ve contracted Lyme disease from a tick, it may take a few days for symptoms to show. The most notable symptom is a bull’s-eye rash (called erythema migrans by the Centers for Disease Control [CDC]), which shows up 60-80 percent of people infected about 7-14 days after the initial bite, according to the NJ Department of Health. Other symptoms include fatigue, fever, headache, stiffness in the neck, muscle aches and joint pain. If untreated, symptoms can progress into arthritis, nervous system issues and heart problems.

If you suspect you or your child of showing symptoms, head to a doctor for lab and clinical tests to find out for sure. If you’re diagnosed early, antibiotics for 3-4 weeks is the typical course of treatment. If it’s advanced, you’ll need intravenous antibiotics for a month or more, usually amoxicillin or doxycycline. Even if you start feeling better, you must finish all your antibiotics.

Tick Bite and Lyme Disease Prevention

“It’s important to take precautions against ticks, particularly as the weather gets warmer and everyone is enjoying the outdoors,” suggests Tam. “Avoid wooded areas with dense shrubs and leaf litter, wear protective clothing, use insect repellent, perform tick checks, mow [the] lawn and keep shrubs trimmed.”

But whether it’s for a day on the lake or your family’s annual camping trip, you’ll end up outside one way or another this summer. Not to worry: there’s plenty you can do to hopefully stay tick-free. Wear solid, light color clothing so you can easily spot a tick if one is on you. Tuck pants into socks and wear a breathable long-sleeve shirt. Use Insect repellent (DEET for clothes and skin, or permethrin repellent for clothes only).

The NJ Department of Environmental protection suggests reapplying repellent if your skin gets wet from sweat or water. There’s also clothing with insecticide already embedded in the fibers, which usually survives multiple washes. But the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station advises to be careful where you spray your repellant and the amount you use because it also kills insects our ecosystem needs, like bees and butterflies.

If the kids usually stick to the backyard rather than the woods, keep ticks out of your yard by mowing your lawn and trimming your trees, as that’ll give the ticks fewer places to hide and reasons to stick around. Regardless of where they’ve been playing, do a check for ticks once the kids (and your pets!) come inside. Check the whole body, paying close attention to areas like the scalp, behind the ears, under the arms, ankles and groin. Look in warm, moist, dark areas on the hunt for dark spots under the skin that feel like tiny grains of sand.

For more information, head to the NJ Department of Health’s website or the CDC’s.