Climate change has been good to our disease-carrying, eight-legged friends. According to the most recent data from the CDC, there are an average of 476,000 cases of Lyme disease (the most common illness transmitted by black-legged ticks in North America) per year. That’s up from 16,273 reported cases in 1999. While that astronomical shift is due to a number of factors, one of the chief causes is global warming, which is enabling blacklegged ticks to expand their range and elevation, grow in population, and stay active for a longer portion of the year.
As hikers and backpackers increasingly come into contact with black-legged ticks—also known as deer ticks—on- and off-trail, they’ve also been introduced to more information, some of it questionable. Here are the 8 most common falsehoods around tick safety.
Myth 1: Ticks are only around in the summer
Unfortunately, tick season is increasingly long. Really long. If you live in one of the big deer tick ecosystems (like New England and the Midwest), you can expect ticks to be actively questing (a term for the technique used to latch on to passing mammals) from early spring to early winter depending on your latitude. In spring, ticks are in their larval stage and extremely hard to detect at roughly the size of a poppyseed. By summer, ticks have entered their adult stage, and are easier to see at closer to the size of a sesame seed. They’ll remain active in search of a final meal well into the winter months as long as it remains above freezing.
Myth 2: Ticks die in the winter
Contrary to popular belief, ticks do not die in the winter and long, hard winters do not lower the tick population the following year. Most tick species enter a type of hibernation known as diapause that keeps them from reemerging until days become longer and the average temperature rises above freezing. Female ticks that did not successfully feed the previous season will become active on any winter day above freezing in a last ditch attempt to survive—that means on a warm day in January, you can still get bitten.
Myth 3: Ticks only live for a few weeks
Unlike many common insects, ticks (which are arachnids) can live up to three years depending on how successful they are at finding hosts. If you were hoping that tick you pulled off of your adventure dog was going to lie down and die after a few days, don’t hold your breath. (Although they won’t last very long in dry, indoor environments.)
Myth 4: Tick bites always cause bullseye rashes
If you are bitten by a tick carrying Lyme disease, you have a 60-80% chance of developing the classic bullseye rash. But just because you don’t have a rash, doesn’t mean you don’t have Lyme. Other common symptoms include a fever, chills, and aches and pains—particularly joint pain. Remember, Lyme tests are historically unreliable depending on when you take them. If you are experiencing these early symptoms, it is likely you will test negative for Lyme, as it takes several weeks for antibodies to develop. For more information on Lyme diagnosis and treatment, read the CDC’s website.
Myth 5: Lyme disease is easy to treat with antibiotics
It’s true that many people who are treated for Lyme disease with antibiotics in the first few weeks of infection make a full recovery. For undetected Lyme, however, chronic symptoms of the disease can persist for an unknown period of time, even with retroactive treatment, in what medical professionals call “post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome.” It’s important to note that Lyme and its long term effects are still poorly understood. A recent paper in Frontiers in Neurobiology found traces of the disease in an autopsy of a deceased woman even after an aggressive treatment of antibiotics earlier in life.
Myth 6: Once you get Lyme disease, you are immune
False. You can be infected with Lyme any number of times, regardless of whether or not you’ve received treatment for your previous infections.
Myth 7: Your dog’s tick medication will help prevent infestations
There are many different products used to protect your canine companion from ticks and fleas. While they might prevent your dog from getting sick, they won’t keep those tiny arachnids from hitching a ride into your home or onto your bed. Instead, the medication floods the tissue fluids beneath your dog’s skin, killing the ticks after they bite. That means the tick could easily drop off or crawl to another (human) host in the meantime.
Myth 8: Washing your clothing kills ticks
Warm (or even hot) water won’t kill ticks, regardless of how long your washing machine cycle is: the little creepers can survive submersion in water for days. Drying your hiking apparel for a minimum of 6 minutes on high heat should do the trick, however.