It’s already a “really, really bad” year for ticks in Upstate NY

Written by Glenn Coin.

Syracuse, N.Y. – Brian Leydet makes his living studying the ticks that cause Lyme disease, and he knows that ticks avoid sunny yards with grass cut short.

So he was surprised and disturbed to find a tick on the ankle of his 21-month-old son, who plays only in the mown grass in the sunny part of their Fayetteville yard.

“My yard has no tick habitat. That’s really concerning,” said Leydet, who studies ticks as a professor at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. “I’m seeing higher numbers at the edges of my yard than we’re seeing in tick habitat.”

Leydet said the lack of a late season snowfall led to more adult black-legged, or deer, ticks surviving the winter. That means they laid more eggs that have now turned into the life stage that causes most cases of Lyme disease, the nymph. Leydet speculates that there are so many nymphal ticks this year, the shady, damp habitat areas they prefer are overcrowded and forcing them to move into open yards to find a meal.

“It’s just really, really bad this year,” he said.

Nymphs are less likely to carry the Lyme bacteria than adult ticks are, but nymphs cause 80% of Lyme cases. That’s because the nymphs are active in summertime, when people are more likely to be outdoors, and because the nymphs, about the size of a poppy seed, are difficult to see when they attach to skin. Adult ticks are larger, about the size of a sesame seed, and more easily seen on the skin.

Leydet is careful to spray his shoes with permethrin, an insecticide, but he still found a tick on himself recently after being in the yard. Fortunately, the tick was dead, probably killed by crawling through the permethrin, he said. His son is fine, too.

Ticks tend to prefer moist, dark areas, so they’re most commonly found in high grass or bushes in dense shade. Leydet said his yard has a single line of trees, a place he didn’t expect to find ticks when he dragged a cloth along the ground recently.

“I picked up 20 ticks in 15 minutes,” he said. “There’s also a single tree behind my house, an oak with some understory. I circled it once and picked up seven nymphs.

“They’re out there in numbers,” he said.

The numbers aren’t the only scary part, he said: Half of the 14 ticks from his yard he had tested in the lab were positive for Lyme bacteria.

Lyme disease cases generally start increasing in June, so it’s too early to know how bad this season will be, said Dr. Kristopher Paolino, the Lyme disease expert at Upstate Medical University,

"That said, I’m seeing a lot of tick bites and have already seen a handful of Lyme cases, as well as other tick-borne diseases," said Paolino, an assistant professor of medicine, and microbiology and immunology.

New York sees about 8,000 cases of Lyme disease annually, according to the state Department of Health. Early symptoms include flu-like symptoms such as headaches, body aches, fevers, chills and joint pain. About half of people infected with the Lyme bacteria will also get a circular rash that grows outward from the center. The disease can be treated with antibiotics if caught early, but can cause serious health problems if left untreated.

Leydet and other experts urge people to use precautions when outdoors, especially:

-- Spraying clothes and especially shoes with a permethrin-based spray, available at drug stores and outdoors stores.

-- Wearing light-colored clothing so you can see the dark ticks crawling up.

-- Spraying exposed skin with bug spray containing DEET.

-- Checking your entire body after you’ve been outdoors, especially areas like armpits, groin and nape of the neck.

-- Removing any tick attached to your body with fine-tipped tweezers. Save the tick by dropping it in rubbing alcohol or putting it in a plastic bag and then placing it in the freezer. The tick can be tested for the Lyme bacteria.