7 new tick viruses to worry about with 'big epidemic' of bugs in much of the country

A recent afternoon walk turned into a tick attack for a Massachusetts man.

As community forester Derek Lirange was hiking around the Tower Hill Botanic Gardens in Worcester on May 16, he spotted a few ticks on his pants. Within a few more minutes, there were five or six more ticks, followed by more and more. By the end of the hike, he counted 26 ticks.

I hadn't taken every precaution, such as spraying with insect repellent, but I was wearing long pants and socks," the 26-year-old told TODAY. "It was a creepy, ongoing discovery."

Luckily, none had embedded. But the spike of the tick population in the gardens led to the cancellation of a spring walk around the reservoir.

Welcome to the new tick season. No one knows exactly how many ticks are out there, but the skyrocketing cases of tick-borne diseases recently reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides indirect evidence that the little bloodsuckers are becoming more numerous, said Alfaro Toledo, an assistant professor in the department of entomology at Rutgers University.

10 PHOTOS
How to avoid tick bites
See Gallery
How to avoid tick bites

1. Stay in the middle of the path

When hiking, make sure to stay in the middle of the path. Weeds, grass and trees make it easier for ticks to crawl onto you. Don't venture out to the grass or bushes, where ticks are formidable to be hiding. 

2. Wear long pants and closed toed shoes

Protect your skin. Adding an extra layer makes it more difficult to latch on to you. It's smart to wear pants, long sleeves and hats, especially in the summer.

3. Invest in deer-resistant plants. 

Since ticks feed on and are transported by deer, try looking into deer-resistant plants. French marigolds, rosemary, mint and crape myrtle are just some of the greens deer tend to "overlook". 

See a complete list of the herbs and flowers here

4. Check your dog! 

Dogs can literally bring ticks right to your front door. Prevent ticks by keeping their coats short in the summer. Use your hands to check the fur, stopping if you feel a pea-sized bump. Favorite spots ticks like to hide include the ears, toes and under the tail. 

Dog ticks don't "harbor diseases that sicken people", but you should still be wary. 

5. Yes, repellant can help. 

According to TickenEncounter, spray with DEET does not provide "sufficient" protection. Get spray for your clothes like Permethrin, which instantly kills ticks. 

6. Dry your clothes 

The CDC recommends tumble drying clothes immediately for ten minutes after you've been outside. Ticks can easily "dry out" with high heat, but you should make sure the clothes are completely dry. 

Warning: Ticks can survive the wash. 

7. Tuck your pants into your socks.

This covers the small, easily accessible space in between your pants and ankles. Especially if you are sitting, it makes it easier for ticks to latch on. 

8. Stay in the sun.

Since ticks survive in shady, humid environments, researchers agree that staying in the sun lowers the risk for ticks. According to LiveScience, ticks "can't survive" in places with lower than 80% humidity. 

9. Invest in Permethrin socks

The chemical is successful in protecting against ticks, mosquitoes and other types of bites. Lymedisease.org estimates that permethrin-treated footwear offered 74 times the protection from bites.

10. Mow your lawn

Cut your grass, clean your yard, get rid of any extra firewood or wood chips. 

HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

"It's a big epidemic affecting the entire East Coast," said Toledo. "Witness the spread of the deer tick to the north and west."

And it's not just deer ticks we now have to worry about. The numbers of Lone Star ticks, which can trigger an allergy to red meat, are also on the rise and their habitat continues to expand, Toledo says.

In its recent report, the CDC said there have been seven new tick-borne viruses discovered to infect people since 2004.

Why more ticks?

One big factor leading to the tick explosion is the overall warming trend. But there are several factors beyond warming weather driving the rise in tick numbers, experts say. One is the booming numbers of deer and rodents. Deer, which are the preferred hosts of adult ticks, are increasing in numbers, "because basically there are no predators anymore," Toledo says.

More deer means more female adult ticks go on to lay eggs.

High numbers of rodents also drive the numbers of ticks. After hatching from eggs, tick larvae attach to rodents to feed and, unfortunately for us, pick up diseases like Lyme and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Once the larvae get their meal of blood, they move on to the next phase of their cycle, the nymph stage, which is when they're most likely to latch on to a human.

Tick types

Though both nymphs and adults can transmit disease, the nymphs are more likely to do so because of their small size. Adult ticks are big enough to be easy to spot and get rid of before they can pass on diseases like Lyme. Nymphs are much smaller and often attach long enough to transmit disease without our ever spotting them.

And while deer ticks are most likely to be the ones transmitting Lyme and lone star ticks, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, dog ticks and a new invader, the Longhorned tick, can also carry and transmit disease.

Experts used to tell people they'd be safe from tick bites if they kept their lawns mowed and stayed out of wooded areas—and that's still mostly true for deer ticks. But Lone star ticks and dog ticks, which both can carry diseases and bite humans, are perfectly happy roaming through mowed lawns, said Matt Frye, an entomologist at Cornell University.

Frye says we should just accept that every year now is going to be a bad tick year. That means we should get serious about examining our bodies for ticks. "You should do a tick check every day, like you brush your teeth every day," he said.

The situation isn't entirely hopeless. Though there are no real natural enemies of ticks, researchers are working on some ingenious ways of knocking their numbers back. One method currently being tested in communities with high numbers of ticks is to treat rodents with tick-killing substances, Frye said. Boxes baited for the rodents give them a dose of the same tick poison used to protect dogs.

The idea is that if you can lower the numbers of ticks that make it to the nymph stage, fewer people will be infected. That method is still being tested, so it won't help any of us right now.

In the meantime, if you do spot a tick and want to know what kind it is and whether it's carrying a disease, you can send it to a lab for testing, said Laura Goodman, an assistant research professor at Cornell.

She suggests you place your tick in a sealed, escape-proof container and ship it to Cornell or one of the other certified labs around the country. One of the best ways to kill the tick, Goodman says, is to place the container in your freezer. The shock from going directly from warm weather to freezing temperatures will be enough to do in your tick, she said.

TODAY.com writer Meghan Holohan contributed to this report 

Read Full Story