This year, scientists are worried that a perfect storm is brewing for Lyme disease to spread at alarming rates. A high volume of acorns in the northeast in 2015 resulted in a spike in the white-footed mouse population. Because ticks feed on these mice, scientists in the northeast fear a surge in ticks carrying Lyme disease beginning this month.

A recent article from USA Today explains how these factors are causing higher rates of Lyme disease, and what public health officials are doing in response.

Like many northeast states, New Jersey has long had a high rate of the disease, in part because of residential expansion into tick territory. Ticks must be attached to humans for 36 to 48 hours or more before the Lyme bacteria can be transmitted. If detected early, the disease can be treated successfully with antibiotics. If left untreated, it can lead to serious heart and nervous system problems. Other long-term effects include headaches, chronic stomach problems, memory loss, stiffness of joints and speech impairment.

The most common infected tick in New Jersey — black-legged or deer ticks — will feed on just about any animal they can attach themselves to. And although they are often found on deer, which can transport them around a forest, it’s typically the white-footed mouse that infects ticks. The mice host the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, borrelia burgdorferi. Ticks acquire them by feeding on mouse blood and can then transmit them to other animals and humans.

Cases may already be up, with the relatively mild winter allowing ravenous adult ticks to be more active. Joe Zoltowski, director of the New Jersey Division of Plant Industry, found ticks on his clothes in January during his regular treks through New Jersey’s fields and forests.

“It was crazy,” he said. “I’m plucking ticks off me in January. You’re not supposed to see that.”

Ticks have a two-year life cycle, going from larva to nymph to adult.

What concerns [Felicia Keesing, a biologist at Bard College in New York, who has spent years researching tick-borne diseases] is not the adult ticks, which die off in the spring, but the newly formed nymph ticks that acquired the Lyme disease pathogen when they feasted on mouse blood as larvae last fall. About 30% of nymph ticks are infected in a normal year, Keesing said. That is expected to go up.

Keesing and scientists at the non-profit Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in upstate New York say there is a direct link between acorn abundance and a surge in infected ticks.

Oak trees go through a boom-and-bust cycle with acorn production, and 2015 was a boom year in the northeast. With a plentiful food source that can be stored over the winter, the mouse population often swells the following year. “We saw the acorns in 2015 and then we saw a plague of mice in 2016,” Keesing said. “We have 25 years of monitoring that shows the link.”

Ticks have a two-year life cycle, going from larva to nymph to adult.

What concerns Keesing is not the adult ticks, which die off in the spring, but the newly formed nymph ticks that acquired the Lyme disease pathogen when they feasted on mouse blood as larvae last fall. About 30% of nymph ticks are infected in a normal year, Keesing said. That is expected to go up.

Keesing and scientists at the non-profit Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in upstate New York say there is a direct link between acorn abundance and a surge in infected ticks.

Oak trees go through a boom-and-bust cycle with acorn production, and 2015 was a boom year in the northeast. With a plentiful food source that can be stored over the winter, the mouse population often swells the following year. “We saw the acorns in 2015 and then we saw a plague of mice in 2016,” Keesing said. “We have 25 years of monitoring that shows the link.”

The CDC estimates the number of Lyme disease cases nationwide could be 10 times higher than what’s actually reported. Because Lyme disease’s early symptoms — fatigue, muscle pain, joint swelling, fever — often mimic the flu or other diseases, infected people — and even their doctors — often don’t test for it. Since it requires a special blood test, it is often misdiagnosed.

Other biologists say they, too, will be keeping an eye on the Cary Institute’s work this summer as scientists collect nymph ticks from New York’s Hudson Valley and test them for disease.

“There are a lot of factors showing the potential for an increase this year,” said James Occi, a microbiologist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School who concentrates on tick-borne diseases. “Prophecy can be a tough thing in biology. A lot of people will be looking at this work.”

As always, be sure to take the proper precautions to protect yourself and your family against ticks this year. Avoid heavily wooded areas with tall grass, cover exposed skin, use a strong repellent, and check yourself for ticks regularly.

You should also learn how to properly remove a tick, and know the symptoms of Lyme disease. If you’re battling ticks in your backyard, contact DC Mosquito Squad for professional help.

Related articles

INFOGRAPHIC: The 5 most common types of ticks & how to properly remove a tick
Lyme Disease Signs & Symptoms
Ticks Carrying Lyme Disease Live in Eastern National Parks
Are Mice the Bearers of Bad News?