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How To Avoid Tick Bites This Summer

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

For many of us who are locked inside our homes this past year, the great outdoors beckoned. But all that time outside likely brought many of us face-to-face with some tiny, bloodthirsty critters - those are, of course, ticks. The CDC reports that incidents of tick-borne illnesses have been rising over the years. This year has been particularly bad in parts of the country. Lee Ann Sporn is a professor of biology at Paul Smith's College in upstate New York. Thank you so much for joining us.

LEE ANN SPORN: It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell us about ticks. I mean, why are ticks so troublesome right now?

SPORN: Well, we are right in the thick of nymph season here in upstate New York. And the young ticks, the juveniles, are out, and they are certainly bloodthirsty. They're looking to feed on an animal. And sometimes they encounter humans in that process. And the ticks that we have can carry several different infectious diseases. The most common is Lyme disease.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what are the other ones? I mean, I got bit by a tick, I will say, about 10 days ago, and it was not fun.

SPORN: No, it's kind of scary to get bitten by a tick, but most of the diseases that they transmit are really treatable. So the secret is to just be aware of what the risk is locally when you get bitten by a tick. So aside from Lyme disease, here in my area, we have a risk of a disease called anaplasmosis and also a malaria-like disease, believe it or not, called babesiosis.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So why are we seeing a particularly bad tick season in certain parts of the country right now? Is it because more people are outdoors? Is it climate change?

SPORN: So it seems that tick populations are changing. Not only the populations are changing, but the diseases that they pick up from animals in the area are changing, too. So it's a bit of a moving target. Climate change is a big driving factor here in the Northeast. So the milder, warmer, wetter winters are allowing ticks to be up and active more, so they're more successful, and they're reproducing better. Different situations can exist in different parts of the country. But I would say it's probably the rapidity of change, human impact, you know, affecting the landscape. Climate - it's getting warmer. Animal populations are changing. We're changing land use. And all of that causes tick populations to, it seems - to go up.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So explain to me how ticks get on you because they're very, very crafty, I have found.

SPORN: So if you think like a tick, a tick's goal is to find an animal to feed on. In the springtime here in New York, the blacklegged ticks, which are our biggest threat, are looking to get on small mammals - rodents, you know, mice, chipmunks, squirrels. So they're going to climb up on the foliage, about six inches off the ground, and wait for an animal to go by. They can't jump. They can't fly. They can't fall from the trees. They're little spiders, actually. They're cousins to spiders, and they have a little bit of spider silk. And once they're on an animal, they climb up and find a nice, moist, dark place to dig in and have a blood meal. So that can happen to us, too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what can we do to sort of protect ourselves from the little bloodsuckers?

SPORN: So the important things to do are to wear light-colored clothing so you can see the dark ticks. That's particularly important here where the ticks are - they're blacklegged ticks. They look very dark. Tucking in your pants into socks, wearing insect repellent. And the most important thing, I think, is to do a tick check every time you're out in potential tick habitat - just looking over your body and making sure no ticks are crawling or have attached to you. And doing that daily is really, really important.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Lee Ann Sporn, professor of biology at Paul Smith's College in upstate New York. Thank you very much.

SPORN: Oh, thank you. It was a pleasure being on the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF NITSUA'S "ALWAYS REMEMBER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.