There’s a chill in the air, frost on the ground and maybe even the first flutters of snow, but even in winter Lyme disease can still affect you so beware those ticks. Ixodes dammini is the tick responsible for most Lyme disease infections in the northeast of the US and these ticks can live in your lawn, shrubbery, and wooded areas, still being active even on warm winter days.
Granted, you’re more likely to be wrapped up in layers of clothing but a determined tick might latch on to you or even your dog, getting into the house and seeking any opportunity to bite.
Animals and Lyme Disease in Winter
Lyme disease-carrying ticks in the US usually bite in their nymphal stage, but some in Europe and Asia are as, or more, active as adults. Rates of tick infection with Borrelia burgdorferi vary across the US and, despite official statements to the contrary, the bacteria have been found in some southern states by determined researchers looking for proof of Lyme. Ticks will feed on a variety of mammals, man included, and man’s best friend who is even easier to grab onto and stay hidden whilst feeding. Livestock, horses, cows, sheep, and so forth, will also be targets for ticks, so those working with animals should watch out for symptoms of Lyme disease such as sudden unexplained lameness, loss of appetite, and irritability. The presence of ticks on an animal’s fur might mean that your own risk of contracting Lyme disease is higher should you spend considerable time with that animal, especially when a dog or cat sleeps in your bed or snuggles on the sofa with you.
Winter Ticks in Warmer Climates
Adult western-blacklegged ticks are actually thought more likely to be a problem in fall and winter in California and areas further south where the weather remains warmer for longer. Between October and March the adult ticks are active and those permanent populations in the area are thought to have around a 5% rate of infection. Warnings issued in Santa Cruz County about the possibility of being bitten by a tick carrying Lyme disease bacteria during winter come courtesy of a newly established Vector Control division which local residents fought for in recent years. The division’s remit is to educate citizens and visitors about the risks of Lyme disease and other pathogens and infectious diseases in the region. The manager of the unit, Paul Binding, has encouraged inspection for ticks after walking in brushy areas, for yourself, your partner, children, and pets and Binding also suggests keeping in the center of trails to avoid overhanging brush where ticks might be lying in wait.
Suspicious Flu-Like Illness in Winter
Watching for flu-like illness might be a little simpler in summer when the chills and cold are unusual, but spotting such symptoms when everyone has the winter sniffles and the cold is sneaking into your bones anyway can be doubly hard. Checking for a spreading Lyme disease rash at the first sign of a cold or flu-like illness might help catch the infection early, later diagnosis without the rash or initial symptoms can be a frustrating process as many Lyme disease advocates will testify. Lyme disease blood tests are notoriously unreliable, especially when taken too early for antibodies to have formed significant levels in the blood or where early antibodies are no longer present as the infection has disseminated through the body. Severe neurological complications can arise from an untreated Lyme disease infection, as can Lyme arthritis, heart problems (Lyme carditis), and also a variety of symptoms that can reflect a pre-existing weakness in some body system or other.
Lyme Disease in Canada in Winter
Canadians fearful of Lyme disease may find extra cause for concern as the presence of winter ticks increases as the weather cools. Such ticks are commonly found on moose, deer, livestock, and horses but are not thought to feed on humans so presents little real risk of infecting a person with Lyme disease. The brown dog tick might find its way into the house on an animal’s fur and drop off at the baseboards or on soft furnishings but humans are not the ticks’ preferred meal.
States Where Winter Lyme Disease Occurs
Cases of Lyme disease in winter are reported in the CDC figures, with Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania often topping the list. Maine, New Hampshire, Montana, Vermont, and Michigan are also areas where winter proves no obstacle to ticks infecting people with Borrelia burgdorferi, and the same is true of Connecticut, where Lyme disease was identified and named, and New Jersey, and Virginia have also reported cases in winter. January and February, with snow cover and icy winds still sees reports of infections occurring and the new research suggesting that Lyme disease bacteria survived the Ice Age makes it even less surprising that these ticks go about their business throughout the winter months.
Wrap up warm as the winter comes but keep in mind that tick checks should still be carried out routinely. A tick in place for less than twenty-four hours has a significantly reduced chance of transmitting Lyme disease bacteria so keep up your guard, especially if you work outside regularly as a hunter, or even if you are an avid skier or snowboarder. Take care when handling firewood too as the ticks may have made themselves at home in the warm, damp conditions of a sheltered woodpile. Similarly, mice and other wildlife that act as a host reservoir for the zoonosis might be lurking in the garage or shed over the winter with ticks never far away from such hosts. Ticks seem to favor hardwood habitats, such as oaks or mixed forests, but mice are a favourite host of the ticks and these often nest in fallen hardwood and pine. Even a typical wash cycle may not kill ticks and they may hide in the baseboards and cracks in the floor or in carpets for months. Use of tick repellents, even in the colder months is advisable and everyone should be aware that in winter, Lyme disease is still a possibility that is too dangerous to ignore.