Ticks are usually associated with the late spring and summer months. Warmer weather brings them out to search for hosts, and receiving a tick bite in winter would be considered a relative rarity. However, many people don’t know exactly what happens to ticks in the winter. Do they die off? Do they hibernate? Can you still get bitten, even in cold temperatures? Ticks are known spreaders of disease. Though they’re small, they’re a virtual hand grenade of bacteria, and can infect their host with any number of debilitating disorders. One of the most prominent and dangerous of these is Lyme disease, which is spread exclusively via deer ticks, otherwise known as black-legged ticks. So can ticks go into hibernation in winter, or should we be equally vigilant during the colder months?
The answer to the question “Can ticks go into hibernation?” very much depends on the type of tick. The American dog tick and the lone star tick are not traditionally active during the winter and autumn months. The winter tick, however, which hatches in the late summer months, is most active during the colder period, as the name suggests. This tick species, found in the North East of America, is different from most; it will remain attached to one host for the entirety of its life cycle. Other species will attach to many different hosts during the course of their life. The deer tick should be the one people are concerned about, however, as it’s the spreader of the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, which causes Lyme disease. So how does this species fare in the winter?
Despite a dramatic decrease in activity, the deer tick does not completely die out during winter. The entomology of the deer tick demands that it hibernate in its early stages. The typical tick lifespan is one to two years, with four stages of growth: egg, larva, nymph and adult. Larvae feed on their host, then drop off and moult into nymphs. These nymphs then hibernate over the winter and emerge in the late spring/early summer. The nymphs attach themselves to birds or small mammals, feeding enough to develop into adult ticks. This process takes time, meaning that the fully formed adult ticks don’t typically emerge until early autumn. Unlike their younger forms, once adulthood is reached, a tick no longer needs to hibernate during the winter.
However, their activity will be lessened, as any sort of snow or frost inhibits them from moving optimally. It won’t kill them, though; freezing temperatures only mean that the ticks are hindered. They often retreat to the leaf litter that they populate and protect themselves from the harsh temperatures in there. Snow only serves to insulate them further within this natural debris, and while they can’t move around freely, it’s important to remember that snow and frost won’t kill them off totally. On any winter day that happens to be above freezing, there will be a contingent of ticks out and about looking for a blood meal. If you live in an area where winters are mild, you should take measures to protect yourself from ticks all year round, and not just think of them as a seasonal menace.
The problem, as with many things related to Lyme disease, is that this information is not well known. Many people, if they even realise ticks are dangerous at all, associate them exclusively with summer. Tick activity is higher during warmer weather; the statistics are crystal clear on that. However, to many people, the idea of getting bitten by a tick in the winter seems absurd. This is an attitude we need to change if we’re going to tackle Lyme disease head on. Compounding the situation, of course, is the fact that global warming is contributing to warmer winters. The effect of global warming on the tick population has been postulated recently by many outlets, and seems to be contributing to the rise of the disease all over the world.
BCA-clinic, a Lyme disease specialist clinic based in Augsburg, Germany, has seen the full effect of the disease across the broadest spectrum of patients. There are two tiers to Lyme. The first stage, which comes on in the immediate aftermath of a bite, is known as acute Lyme. Symptoms include fever-like malaises and usually a distinctive rash which forms in the shape of a bullseye. If the acute stage is missed by either doctor or patient, the disease will retreat for an unspecified length of time, and re-emerge as the chronic form. This form is a lot harder to treat, as symptoms are often vague. The bacteria in the system fires up the immune response to damaging levels, leading to chronic inflammation symptoms in the joints, muscles and bones.
The longer Lyme disease infects the patient, the harder it is to treat. There is much we still don’t know about chronic Lyme, and only a few specialist clinics across the world are capable of treating it properly. It is an accepted fact, however, that it all starts with ticks. If people can be vigilant against tick bites, then the number of new Lyme disease patients will undoubtedly decrease every year. Just make sure to be vigilant all year round, as the winter can potentially be as dangerous as the summer!