“Beware of ticks” — that’s a common warm weather advisory for nature lovers.
Now, with the pandemic waning and more people outdoors, researchers at the University of Illinois and around the Midwest are asking for help researching the disease-carrying blood suckers — and offering advice for avoiding them.
U. of I. experts are now promoting The Tick App, a collaboration between researchers trying to better understand the prevalence and danger of ticks, which account for an increasing number of diseases over the past decade.
The app has been downloaded by thousands of people, who are asked to log their tick experiences and take pictures of the tiny critters, which can transmit Lyme disease and a host of other serious illnesses.
“Tick research really is expanding, and it needs to be because tick-borne diseases are increasing rapidly,” said Rebecca Lee Smith, a U. of I. associate professor of epidemiology.
Camping has exploded since the pandemic began. During the Fourth of July weekend, one of the biggest for outdoor activities, the same precautions apply — wear long pants and boots, and use repellant when walking through wooded and leafy areas in Illinois or surrounding states where ticks are common.
Smith and other researchers say the full picture of the tick problem is still unclear as illness caused by ticks is believed to be undercounted. Across the country, there were nearly 51,000 reported cases of Lyme disease, various types of spotted fever and other tick-borne diseases counted by local health departments in 2019, according to government figures, though federal health officials warn that reported cases are believed to be only “a fraction of the overall number.” Lyme disease cases have tripled since the late 1990s, according to U.S. health officials.
Three species of ticks have been discovered in most counties throughout Illinois, according to U. of I. research. Black-legged ticks, also known as deer ticks, are known for spreading the debilitating illness Lyme disease. American dog ticks, also known as wood ticks, are associated with a class of illnesses known as spotted fever. Untreated, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, can be deadly. A relative newcomer to Illinois, the Lone Star tick, is believed to cause an illness that can cause an allergy to red meat.
While deer ticks are believed to have migrated from Wisconsin over many decades, the Lone Star is a southern U.S. tick that was once believed to have been unable to survive Midwest winters. Climate change may have contributed to the pest’s ability to adapt, and that type of tick has been reported discovered in most Illinois counties.
U. of I. experts are hoping to catch up with their peers in states like Wisconsin, which has been studying tick trends for many years. Researchers also are sharing information. The app, for instance, is feeding into data collected by scientists in a collaboration that includes Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The app potentially helps scientists better understand the spread of disease throughout the Midwest, but it also can help users. For instance, if someone on a family camping trip gets bit, the app allows a person to submit a photo of the tick and an expert can respond within days to identify the species and inform about potential exposure to disease, said Jean Tsao, associate professor at Michigan State University’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.
Tsao says it’s important to know many ticks aren’t infected, but she encourages people to save the tick once it’s carefully removed from a person’s skin with tweezers (remove it at the closest point of the attachment).
“If a tick bites you, save that tick,” Tsao said. “Ticks spread different pathogens, and that is so important for your physician.”
Southwest Michigan, where Chicagoans gather in large numbers, has seen the spread of ticks and a greater risk for Lyme disease over the past 20 years, Tsao said.
Northwest Indiana also is seeing a rise, reporting about 200 cases of Lyme disease a year — roughly a doubling from a decade ago, said Lee Green, a vector-borne epidemiologist with the Indiana State Department of Health.
Green estimates about 40% of black-legged ticks in the area may be infected and can transmit Lyme disease, which can result in flu-like symptoms.
One other cautionary note: Most of the ticks in Northwest Indiana in the summer are tiny, immature and “poppy seed small,” Green said. This presents a challenge for usual tick checks and makes the need for repellant for skin or clothing even more important.
In general, ticks are much more likely to be in well-shaded but humid areas, said Susan Paskewitz, a University of Wisconsin entomologist and researcher. “They don’t like the bright, hot sun,” she said.
When hiking, stay in the middle of the path if possible, and be careful if you move to the side where ticks may be hiding in grass and leaves, Paskewitz said.
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.