If there was ever a year to check for ticks, this is it

It's shaping up to be a bad year for ticks in Minnesota.
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The three types of ticks in Minnesota that are known to cause diseases: The lone star tick (upper left), the American dog tick aka wood tick (upper right) and the blacklegged tick aka deer tick (bottom right).

The three types of ticks in Minnesota that are known to cause diseases: The lone star tick (upper left), the American dog tick aka wood tick (upper right) and the blacklegged tick aka deer tick (bottom right).

Watch out for ticks.

That's the message Jon Oliver with the University of Minnesota School of Public Health has for Minnesotans this year. 

In a Q&A published on the university's website on May 20, Oliver said, "2021 is shaping up to be a bad year for tickets."

"A lot of adult deer ticks (blacklegged ticks) were active early in the spring and this may correspond to high levels of activity among the very small immature ticks," Oliver said. 

Those immature ticks, aka nymphs, are the ones to watch out for. They're considered more of a disease risk because they're smaller and harder to notice, which allows them to attach and feed for longer, Oliver says.

The longer a tick stays attached, the greater the chance the bacteria the tick can carry enters the body, which can cause Lyme disease or other less common tick-borne diseases. 

Oliver says it usually takes "hours" for the bacteria to enter the body after a tick attaches. 

In Minnesota, there are dozens of different types of ticks but only three known to cause disease, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) says. They are:

  • Blacklegged ticks (aka deer tick) are to blame for the majority of tick-borne diseases in Minnesota, including Lyme disease.
  • American dog ticks (aka wood tick) are the most common tick to bite humans but rarely cause disease, though they may spread Rocky Mountain spotted fever and tularemia. 
  • Lone star ticks are rare in Minnesota but can spread diseases like ehrlichiosis and tularemia.

MDH says deer ticks usually attach to humans and pets and feed for 3-5 days. They need to be infected with a disease agent and attached for 24-48 hours before it could spread Lyme disease. Other, less common tick-borne diseases may spread in less time, MDH notes. 

Related [May 25]: Minnesota boy diagnosed with rare tick-borne disease

On average, about one in three adult deer ticks and one in five deer tick nymphs (immature ticks) are infected with the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, MDH says. 

Oliver recommends daily tick checks, which will greatly reduce the chance of getting Lyme disease even if you're bitten by a tick. Especially if you spend time in areas ticks like to call home, like wooded, brushy areas where you may find mice, deer and other mammals (these habitats provide the humidity the ticks need to survive). 

Drier conditions mean fewer ticks

There's some good news though. Oliver says dry weather and drought conditions limit tick activity and reduces their population numbers, especially deer ticks that like it humid. 

The U.S. Drought Monitor as of May 25 shows much of the state is abnormally dry while a portion of far southern Minnesota and northwestern Minnesota are in a moderate drought. (Note: The drought levels do not include data from Thursday, when it rained for much of the day.)

"Parts of the state having a very dry season may see fewer ticks later on this year," Oliver says.

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Lyme disease in Minnesota

New cases of Lyme disease have been increasing in Minnesota over the years, the Department of Health says. 

The median number of cases reported from 2000-2008 was 913, while the median number of cases reported from 2009-2017 was 1,203.

The signs and symptoms of the disease vary and appear in stages, usually starting with a small red bump and then a bullseye rash that appears 3-30 days after infection and slowly expands, Mayo Clinic says

Later signs and symptoms of Lyme disease include bouts of joint pain and swelling, likely impacting your knee, and then years later people can develop neurological problems. 

There is a treatment for Lyme disease but it is more effective the earlier you start it.

Tick prevention

In addition to daily tick checks if you spend time in wooded or grassy areas, there are other precautions people can take to prevent ticks and the diseases they carry, with Oliver noting "Tick-borne diseases are more easily prevented than cured."

Here are some things you can do to prevent ticks, per health officials: 

  • Wear insect repellent that contains DEET
  • Wear long pants and long sleeves when you're in wooded and/or grassy areas. And check your clothing and gear before going inside in case a tick hitched a ride.
  • You can tumble dry clothing and gear in a dryer on high heat for at least 10 minutes to kill deer ticks. If your clothing or gear is wet, increase the amount of time in the dryer. 
  • If you spend a lot of time in tick habitats, treat a set of clothing or buy a set with permethrin, which repels ticks (don't put this on your skin). 
  • Protect your pets against ticks using topical or oral treatments or tick-prevention collars (contact your vet). A Lyme disease vaccine is also approved for pets to protect them against the disease. 
  • Daily tick checks to quickly find and remove ticks that may have found you or your pet. 

If you find a tick biting you, use tweezers to grab the tick by its mouthparts where they enter your skin and pull it straight off. Then be mindful of how you're feeling — if you develop a rash or flu-like symptoms, contact your doctor and mention the tick bite, Oliver says.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has other tips for preventing ticks from biting you and your pets, and preventing ticks from taking up residence in your yard. 

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