Mild winter = 'Tick'-ing time bomb this spring
In a lot of ways, last winter was much easier on state residents than in past years. Little snow meant less shoveling, safer road conditions and, in general, fewer weather-related problems like school snow days or salt and sand damage to cars.
But the winter wasn't just kinder to us. It was also easier on other creatures in the state -- including deer ticks.
These pests, best known for transmitting Lyme disease (as well as other illnesses) to humans, are expected to be more active and abundant this year, said Kirby C. Stafford, vice director and chief entomologist for the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station's Department of Epidemiology. Stafford said though the mild winter hasn't directly increased the tick population, the pests are showing themselves earlier than usual because of the relatively balmy temperatures.
They're not the only ones taking advantage of the warmer-than-average winter and spring.
"When it's 40 degrees in the fall, people think it's cold and stay inside," Stafford said. "For some reason, when it's 40 degrees in the spring, people think `Oh my God! Let's go outside!' So there are a lot more people outside, and there's a lot more exposure (to ticks)."
More exposure means a higher risk of tick-borne illnesses, particularly Lyme disease. That illness, first identified in Connecticut in 1975, is often marked by an expanding red rash (called a bull's eye rash) that sometimes appears around the tick bite. Other symptoms include fatigue, headache, fever and achy muscles and joints.
The disease can be hard to diagnose because the symptoms can mimic other illnesses. Jennifer Reid, community coordinator for the Ridgefield-based tick-borne illness prevention group B.L.A.S.T., had two daughters fall ill with Lyme disease. After her older daughter became sick her freshman year of college, it took nearly a year to diagnose her. Reid's second daughter became ill four years later, during her senior year of high school. Her illness was diagnosed faster, but was so severe that, by the end of the school year, she needed intravenous treatment.
"Lyme disease really disrupted, for both of them, what should have been one of the best years of their lives," Reid lamented.
But Lyme disease is just one illness caused by deer ticks. There are two other major tick-borne diseases, anaplasmosis and human babesiosis, which typically cause flu-like symptoms. Like Lyme disease, these illnesses can be serious if left untreated. Unlike Lyme disease, which can affect a variety of organs, these illnesses attack the blood cells. Anaplasmosis attacks the white blood cells and human babesiosis attacks the red cells.
Stafford said neither babesiosis nor anaplasmosis is commonly detected in Connecticut. Indeed, the state Department of Public Health estimates that last year, there were 48 confirmed cases of anaplasmosis and 52 of babesiosis -- compared with 2,006 confirmed cases of Lyme disease.
Stafford said there could be a higher rate of tick-related illness this year from what he predicts will be a high number of "nymphal" ticks.
Nymph is the stage between the larval, or baby, state of a tick's life, and its adulthood. This year's nymphs will likely be high in number because last year, when they were larvae, was a boom time for small rodents, which make an excellent food source for ticks.
Chipmunks, mice, squirrels and other such rodents have had a couple of good years, starting with 2010. That year was a good one for "mast" -- the term used to describe acorns and other nuts and fruits that make good rodent food.
Stafford pointed out that last year's succession of snowstorms also benefitted the rodent population, as the snow cover hid them from potential predators. Thus, by spring, these creatures were happy, healthy and ready to be dined upon by ticks.
So how do you protect yourself during this potentially rough tick season? Reid said the best strategy is in the name of the organization she works with. Each letter stands for an important method of tick-bite prevention.
"B" stands for "bathing soon after spending time outdoors." "L" stands for "look your body over for ticks daily and remove them properly." "A" stands for "apply repellent to skin and clothes." "S" stands for "spraying your yard to prevent ticks abundance" and "T" stands for "treat your pets to protect them from ticks and to prevent the spread of illness."
In addition to these tips, Reid said state residents need to pay attention to how their actions can put them in contact with ticks. "You have the potential for encountering ticks almost everywhere," she said. "Most people become infected in their own yard."