It is tick season in North America. As the weather warms and people move outside, the chances of an encounter with one of these blood sucking arthropods increases. Experts told Live Science that tick problems are worse today than they were in the past.

At least 50,000 cases of illness are caused by ticks in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The actual occurrence rates of tick-borne illness are likely to be much higher. According to an estimate in 2021, over half a million Americans are treated for the disease alone each year. According to the CDC, people who are bitten by a tick may be treated for the disease as a precautionary measure.

The risk of tick-borne illness varies from state to state. Deer ticks are a concern in the Northeast. In the Southeast, where dog ticks tend to reside, spotted fevers, including the somewhat misleadingly-named Rocky Mountain spotted fever, dominate.


A potentially fatal neurological virus was carried by 9 out of 10 ticks in this Pennsylvania park.

According to an extension professor of medical entomology at Mississippi State University, ticks are effective spreaders of disease because they can feed on multiple host animals and because they remain attached to their hosts for several days.

One of the reasons that tick encounters are on the rise is the deer population. He said that if ticks don't find a host, they die. When more deer are present, more ticks are able to survive. According to the CDC, the development of rural areas brings people in closer contact with ticks. Climate change may alter the ranges of ticks and tick pathogens in ways that are not yet fully understood, increasing the likelihood of people interacting with ticks.

The peak months for tick bites are May and June according to the CDC. The Northeast sees the most tick-related ER visits per 100,000 people, followed by the Midwest and then the Southeast.

This scanning electron micrograph (SEM) shows us an enlarged view of mouth parts of an American dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis) magnified over 3,000 times.

This scanning electron micrograph (SEM) shows us an enlarged view of mouth parts of an American dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis) magnified over 3,000 times. (Image credit: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

People in the Northeast and Midwest are most likely to be affected by the disease, which is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. People in the mid-Atlantic and Southeast are more likely to get spotted fevers, which are caused by the bacterium Rickettsia rickettsia.

In the mid-Atlantic, South and into Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas, Ehrlichiosis is most often reported.

The symptoms of these tick-borne infections include headaches, rash, and chills. They can be treated with antibiotics, but missed infections can be fatal. Long-term problems can be caused by infections. Some people who catch ehrlichiosis develop an allergy to red meat.

These illnesses have been caused by tick bites. Doctors and scientists have found a host of diseases that ticks transmit. The Heartland and Bourbon viruses have mostly been reported from the South and Midwest. The viruses can cause a variety of symptoms, including headaches, joint pain, and lowered white blood cell counts. There are no cures for these viruses. Some patients have died. It is possible to get the brain and the membranes around the spinal cord from the Powassan virus, which is spread most often by ticks in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions.

Fighting back against tick-borne illness

Researchers are looking for ways to fight back against tick-borne illness. At the State University of New York Upstate Medical University, Saravanan Thangamani and his team are working to develop vaccines for emerging tick-borne viruses. Thangamani told Live Science that vaccines are needed to prevent the viruses from replicating in the human body and spreading beyond the skin.

It's another story when it comes to illnesses caused bybacteria. The first 24 to 36 hours after a bite are when these illnesses are most likely to be transmitted. Instead of trying to develop vaccines for each disease, Thangamani and other scientists are trying to develop vaccines that target the ticks themselves.

An effective anti-tick vaccine would target a cocktail of the tick saliva's proteins. The tick injects a mixture of these proteins during the day to anesthetize the skin and evade the host's immune system. The anti-tick vaccine can interfere with tick feeding and cause them to drop off their host quickly, according to animal trials led by Yale University.

In the next three to five years, I think we should have some good candidates for vaccines.

A good offense is the best defense. When in tick-heavy areas, dress appropriately to avoid tick bites. Tucking your pants into rubber boots can keep ticks at bay.

If you wear boots, leather boots, that come up to your ankles and your pants are flopping in the breeze, that is an interstate highway right up your pants legs.

You can kill ticks with a spray of permethrin. It's not as effective if you use DEET-Containing bug sprays. It's important to check your body for ticks after outdoor activities. If you find a tick attached, remove it with tweezers by grasping it close to the skin and pulling straight up.

If you get sick in the next few weeks, you should mark tick bites on a calendar so that you can tell your doctor when you were bitten. There are some paid services that will test for diseases, as well as a limited number of state health departments and research organizations that will do the same for free. The organization is run by Thangamani. A real-time data dashboard of the state showing which pathogens are present in which counties has been created by the researchers.

The real-time presentation of data is very powerful.

It was originally published on Live Science.