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It's tick season: Here's what you need to know

Life stages of ticks.
Life stages of ticks.

It’s that magical time of year, when you need to start checking yourself for ticks.

The blacklegged tick is the kind of tick we have in Michigan that can transmit Lyme disease, and it’s been expanding its range in our state.

Erik Foster is a medical entomologist with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

He says the risk for running into blacklegged ticks is highest in the western part of the state.

"These ticks were originally documented in Menominee County in the western Upper Peninsula in the late ‘90s, and it wasn’t until the early 2000s that we discovered them in the Lower Peninsula in southwestern lower Michigan," he says. "Since then, the tick range has expanded to encompass essentially all of the western shoreline of the state of Michigan, and those ticks have been moving steadily eastward, so we talk about areas around Kalamazoo and even into Ionia moving eastward in the state, is where we’re starting to see these ticks emerge as well.”

He says ticks hitch rides on deer and birds, so as those creatures move around, ticks can drop off in new locations.

Blacklegged ticks can be hard to spot this time of year

Foster says the blacklegged tick has three life stages.

“There’s the larvae, which is a very small six legged creature, the nymphal stage, which is about the size of a poppy seed, still very small, and then the adult stage," he says. "And at this point in the year, we’re seeing the nymphal stage ticks, which are sometimes hard to detect, they’re kind of black in color and the back end of them may look tan or translucent colored, and these are going to be in areas where you’ve got woods or edge habitat between grassy habitat and the woods."

He says these ticks like to hang out in well-shaded areas that have higher humidity, because once they get out in the sunlight, they dry out pretty quickly.

"If you have an expanding rash in the summer, if you've got fever, body aches, headache, fatigue, these types of symptoms, you want to go see your health care provider and let them know you may have been in an area where there are ticks."

“When you’re walking through the woods, these ticks are waiting; we call this questing, they’re questing for a host, on the edge of vegetation. This could be on the side of a trail, and they’ll grab onto you and climb up your leg or your pants,” he says.

He says the highest risk for running into ticks is in forested areas, but you might also find them in your backyard, especially if your property backs up to a wooded lot.

He says you can trim tree cover back, to open up the area to sunlight. And you can create a border between the woods and the lawn, using wood chips or gravel.

The classic bullseye rash.
Credit CDC
The classic bullseye rash.

Foster says the most common kind of tick in Michigan is the American dog tick, and that tick does not transmit Lyme disease (it can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever, but he says it's very unusual to contract that disease in Michigan).

Preventing Lyme disease

Foster says the best thing to do is try to avoid tick bites in the first place. He recommends wearing EPA-approved insect repellents (such as DEET, picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus).

He says it's important to do a tick check when you get back inside, paying special attention to certain areas of your body where ticks commonly bite: behind the knee, the waistline, groin, armpits, behind the ears, around the neck and in the hairline. Taking a shower when you come in from a wooded area is also a good idea.

"Showering can dislodge ticks that have not yet bitten. Removing a tick that has bitten you before 24-48 hours is also preventative of Lyme disease," he says.

Foster says early treatment is really important with Lyme disease. He says about 70% of people will have an expanding red rash that looks like a bullseye.

“Now, it’s not always going to look like a clear bullseye – this may be just a red area on the skin that expands out over time. And we like people to know you don’t always necessarily want to be looking for an exact bullseye ring, because we don’t want people to miss Lyme disease." he says. "If you have an expanding rash in the summer, if you’ve got fever, body aches, headache, fatigue, these types of symptoms, you want to go see your health care provider and let them know you may have been in an area where there are ticks.”

Tracking Lyme disease cases 

Foster says his department has been tracking Lyme disease cases in Michigan.

The state health department tracks reported cases of Lyme disease.
Credit MDHHS
The state health department tracks reported cases of Lyme disease.

"We've seen increases over the time I’ve been doing surveillance for human cases of Lyme in the state, which goes back ten years or more. We’ve seen steady and slow increases and these increases are coming in areas where the tick is more common," he says. "So where we see Lyme disease cases being reported from, where people are being exposed locally, is in those places like the western Upper Peninsula and in the western part of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan as we’re seeing those increases happening."

You can learn more about avoiding ticks (both for people and pets) on CDC's tick page.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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