Beware, it's the season of the tick

Spring has sprung and it is time to get outside and back in the garden.

But take care, this year is suppose to be a big one for ticks — thanks in a part to an explosion of acorns — and Pennsylvania is ground zero for Lyme disease.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Pennsylvania led the nation in the number of confirmed Lyme disease cases in 2015 with 7,351 confirmed cases.  New Jersey clocked in with 3,932 confirmed cases.

In total, there are 28,453 confirmed cases nationwide in 2015, the majority in the Northeast United States.

The little blood-sucking, black-legged tick, more commonly known as the deer tick, is the big carrier of Lyme disease. Depending on the tick's stage, sex and the timing of its latest meal, a tick can range in size from a period at the end of a sentence to a sesame seed.

The insect's nickname, deer tick, doesn't mean deer are the only ones to blame for the spread of Lyme. Put mice at the top of the list.

It is the white-footed mice, along with some other small rodents and birds, that harbor the disease-causing bacteria responsible for Lyme disease.

An uninfected tick larva will attach itself to a mouse and pick up the disease when it bites to feed on the rodent's blood. It then spreads the bacteria to the next mammal it bites – humans, their pets, deer, other large mammals – while in the nymph stage. The adult ticks will mate on deer, eventually drop off and lay their eggs on the ground, starting the two-year life cycle all over again once the larva finds a mouse to latch onto for its first meal. 

Here is where the acorns come in.

In 2015 Richard S. Ostfeld, a disease ecologist with the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, was hiking in the woods in New York state and found that a bumper crop of acorns had littered the forest floor.

He was ready to declare a public health emergency.

Mice love acorns. And more acorns means more fat and healthy mice for ticks that carry Lyme disease to latch onto.

Fast forward to 2017.  With the warmer winters, the disease has begun to spread outside the usual boundaries as ticks move into warmer areas, across the U.S., Europe and  forested areas of Asia, according to the Cary Institute.

It takes 36 to 48 hours or more before the Lyme disease bacterium can be transmitted.  When detected early, it can be treated with antibiotics. If left untreated, the disease can spread to the joints, heart and nervous system. Currently there is no vaccine for Lyme disease

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, symptoms include fever, fatigue, headache, muscle aches, and joint pain. A bull’s-eye rash may appear. The joint pain associated with the disease is often mistaken for arthritis. Some neuralgic signs can mimic conditions such as multiple sclerosis  and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

To help prevent Lyme disease, avoid walking through tall vegetation, use a repellent, perform tick checks on your body and that of your pets, and remove any ticks immediately. Watch for any Lyme symptoms. Rake leaves from yards and create a barrier of wood chips between lawns and wooded areas to keep ticks away from recreational areas.