Ticks in January? They're out there.
Jan. 30, 2023
By Mary Wade Burnside
Ed Michael, a retired West Virginia University wildlife ecology professor, was staying at his Tucker County cabin at the first of the year, a week after temperatures had plunged to below zero for a few days.
While out driving, Michael, the author of “The Coyotes of Canaan,” came upon a dead coyote and decided to take it back to his cabin for the skull.
The next morning at 5, he awoke to what he described as a “severe burning and itching pain” on his left forearm.
Even though it was early January, a tick had attached itself to Michael’s arm and had begun feeding on his blood, which is how the insects transmit Lyme disease or other tick-borne illnesses, depending on the type of tick.
As a wildlife biologist who spends a lot of time outdoors, Michael said, he has frequently found ticks on himself.
But never in the winter, and never one that resulted in so much pain that eventually included symptoms of feeling weak, lightheaded and nauseated.
Usually, when Monongalia County Health Department alerts the public to a rise in tick bites, the weather is warmer.
But the reality is that ticks can appear during any of the 12 months.
“Adult ticks feed year-round,” said Jamie Moore, manager of MCHD’s Threat Preparedness program. Moore conducts tick dragging during spring and summer in an effort to find the insects and send them off to the West Virginia Office of Laboratory Services to be tested for disease.
“Ticks are active anytime temperatures are 40 degrees or above,” Moore continued. “We see that a lot here.”
Although the temperatures were warmer around the first of the year, just the week before, the weather had been frigid. The (relative) warmth of the coyote might have appealed to the tick until it found an even warmer body in Michael.
Eric Dotseth, an epidemiologist with the West Virginia Bureau of Public Health and entomologist, noted that the adult ixodes scapularis, also commonly called black-legged or deer ticks, are active in the colder months as well as warmer ones.
“I have been known to do tick drags in the winter,” he added.
That said, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), climate change has contributed to a rise in Lyme disease in North America, with ticks appearing in and surviving in more northern states and Canadian provinces where they previously did not habitate.
“For example, deer ticks are mostly active when temperatures are above 45˚F, and they thrive in areas with at least 85% humidity,” according to information on the EPA’s website. “Thus, warming temperatures associated with climate change are projected to increase the range of suitable tick habitat and are, therefore, one of multiple factors driving the observed spread of Lyme disease.”
The report goes on to state that the incidence of Lyme disease in the United States has nearly doubled since 1991, from 3.74 reported cases per 100,000 individuals to 7.21 reported cases per 100,000 in 2018.
The moral of this story is that anybody who spends time outdoors, whether it be a field, a hiking trail or even a household yard, should watch out for ticks year-round.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website provides a wealth of information. While prevention methods such as spraying gear and using tick repellent can be taken, it’s really vital to check yourself and your pets for ticks upon returning from a grassy area.
As for Michael, he drove back to Morgantown early when his symptoms began to worsen and saw a doctor, who put him on the antibiotic doxycycline hyclate. He felt much better after a few days and by the time he completed the two-week course of the medication, he only felt a bit of tenderness where the tick had latched on.
He wants to make sure that hunters and other people who spend time outside in the winter realize the potential hazard of ticks.
“I could not believe I got a tick in the first week of January,” he said. “I thought they were non-threatening in the winter, in some stage underground where there was never a problem.”
Mary Wade Burnside is the public information officer at Monongalia County Health Department.