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They're back! Spring tick season is ramping up

A graphic image showing a pair of feet standing in tall grass with a tick sitting on one blade of grass
Laura Nakasaka
Vermont Public
Wearing long sleeves and pants, and avoiding tall grasses, can help reduce the risk of tick encounters.

Experts warn that you can now find ticks in Vermont year round. That’s partially due to climate change, which is making it easier for the blood-sucking parasites to find hosts throughout the year.

Still, the Vermont Health Department is seeing an increase in tick-related emergency room visits in the last couple weeks — meaning the traditional spring tick season is ramping up.

Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch sat down with Natalie Kwit, a public health veterinarian with the state Health Department, to share what Vermonters should look out for and how they can protect themselves. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Williams Engisch: Well, first of all, how do you think this spring tick season is panning out? Do we know whether it's looking mild, average or severe compared to prior years?

Natalie Kwit
Natalie Kwit

Natalie Kwit: That's hard to say. I would say every year is bad for ticks — or I mean good for ticks, bad for the humans and the animals that they they feed upon. Tick levels can fluctuate year to year, but this is about the time of year where we start seeing tick activity aligning with the warming climate.

As you mentioned, we do syndromic surveillance, which looks at Vermont emergency room and urgent care visits for human-tick encounters. The percentage of visits for tick encounters is aligning quite well with our our historical average from 2004 to 2022 for the current year, so this is kind of what we expect to see.

Are there particular regions throughout the state that see the most ticks?

You can encounter ticks anywhere in the state of Vermont. But in general, we tend to see more ticks in the southern part of the state. That's kind of where we see more tick-borne diseases being recorded as well, which is actually moving more northward over time.

And as we're seeing shorter winters, more frequent warm ups during the traditionally colder months, how's the traditional idea of tick season changing in recent years?

It could be expanding; ticks can be active anytime that the temperatures are above freezing. In the past, we do see ticks being active in the winter months, but that will be more common as we see warming weather over the winter.

And we're sort of using this kind of blanket term — ticks. But are there different sorts of ticks that we should be looking out for in Vermont this time of year?

Actually, 99% of tick-borne diseases that we see in Vermont are transmitted by one tick species. That's the black legged tick or Ixodes scapularis, otherwise known as the deer tick. So that is the main tick that we want Vermonters to be on the lookout for. But they do come in different life stages that can transmit diseases. The life stage that is most responsible for transmitting infection to humans is the nymph, which is an immature stage, but their most abundant beginning in the spring and through the summer months. But adult ticks can also transmit infections to humans as well.

Lyme disease is one of the most well known tick-borne illnesses, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has flagged a jump in this other disease, called babesiosis, in both Vermont and New Hampshire in recent years. Natalie, can you break down what we're seeing there?

Sure. Babesiosis is our third-most-common tick-borne disease in Vermont. It's caused by a microscopic parasite called Babesia microti in Vermont; there are other species found elsewhere. We still have very few cases in Vermont, but Vermont was recently highlighted in a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the CDC for having the highest percent change of case numbers per year over time. To put that in perspective, if we look back to 2011, we had two cases. And then in 2019, we had 34. So it's a sort of small magnitude of rise, but it is a rise overall.

More from Vermont Public: This tick-borne illness is on the rise in Vermont. Here's what you should know.

A graphic showing several ways to prevent tick bites: use tick repellent on skin, wear light-colored pants and long sleeves, treat clothing with permethrin, avoid walking through tall grasses, check yourself when you come inside and take a shower.
Laura Nakasaka
Vermont Public
Tips for avoiding tick-borne illnesses.

How can Vermonters prevent tick bites? You know, these are present year-round in different stages.

Even though ticks may be present anytime there's temperatures above freezing year-round, the risk really rises in the spring and into the summer months based on what we know about human-tick encounters. But there are ways that Vermonters can prevent tick borne diseases in themselves and in their animals.

First, you want to avoid areas where ticks live — so we're avoiding wooded or brushy areas with lots of leaf litter. If you do go into those tick habitats, use EPA-registered tick repellents. [You don't want] unexposed skin. Cover up; wear long sleeves and pants. Coming indoors, after being in tick habitat, check your body, your family's body and your pets' bodies for any crawling ticks or attached ticks. You can even take your clothes that you were wearing outdoors and throw them immediately into a dryer, put them on high heat for 10 minutes and they'll kill any ticks that might be crawling on your clothing.

Take a shower within two hours of coming indoors from tick habitat — that way you can check your body for any attached ticks and wash off any unattached ticks. [Taking a shower] has actually has been studied and shown to prevent tick-borne diseases in humans. If you do find a tick attached on your body, remove it as soon as you can using fine-tip tweezers. [Get the tweezers as close to your body as you can and pull it off directly] and then watch for any signs and symptoms of tick-borne diseases, which are like flu-like illness, fever. And tell your provider if you get sick.

It almost feels like Groundhog Day talking about tick prevention measures every year. Are there any long-term efforts underway that are helping to lessen the impacts of ticks or the diseases that they carry?

We're excited about the new Lyme disease vaccine that is undergoing clinical trials right now — that is a move in the right direction. But again, it's only focusing on one specific tick-borne disease, and there are many in Vermont. If that becomes available, we do encourage people to consider getting vaccinated. But they still should partake in tick prevention methods because there are other diseases that ticks can carry.

More fromBrave Little State: When will there be a vaccine for Lyme Disease?

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