"The northeastern U.S. should prepare for a surge in Lyme disease this spring," cautions the Forest Stewardship Program at Pennsylvania State University.
Its cause is not the mild winter, according to Dr. Richard S. Ostfeld, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, who bases his prediction on the fluctuations in acorns and mouse populations.
"Last year we had a poor acorn crop," explained Susan Gallagher, chief naturalist at the Carbon County Environmental Education Center. "The result is many of the little rodents that depend on acorns didn't survive. So, we have a drop in the rodent population, which include white-footed and deer mice."
"Those mice are the primary hosts for the ticks, which spread disease," she continued. "The ticks need a blood meal, and without sufficient mice to prey on, they are looking for alternative hosts. It's not that they are necessarily in greater numbers out there."
She explained that these hungry ticks are looking for a source of food, and that can include blood from people or their pets.
"Your pets have to be protected against tick-borne diseases," Gallagher said. "There has been an increase in pet Lyme disease. Vets have cautioned us to vaccinate our dogs and check our dogs for ticks."
She advises people, when in the fields and forests, to follow common sense guidelines: wear long sleeves, wear light colored clothing to more easily see the ticks, tuck your pants in your boots, and when you get home, check yourself for ticks.
"Some ticks are very small," she noted. "Deer ticks are tiny things, about the size of the period in this article. If you have any symptoms, even if you don't remember being bitten, check with your doctor – you may need to be tested for Lyme disease."
The Carbon County Environmental Education Center is located at Mauch Chunk Lake Park.
"Twenty years ago we didn't see ticks here. I hiked with thousands of kids, wading in the wetlands and walking in the forest. They didn't come back with ticks," Gallagher said. "Today, checking for ticks is a regular part of our program. We have seen a massive increase in the number of ticks here."
Gallagher cautions parents not to react to this warning to the point that they don't let their children play in the woods. She feels that it is important for children to have an outdoor experience but advises parents to both check their children and to teach them to check themselves for ticks.
She advises parents to look for a small eight-legged creature, with its legs out to the side, some as small as the period on a piece of paper. The ticks could appear on skin or clothing. A mirror can be used to check your back.
"You can feel any large ticks, like dog ticks, if they are crawling on you," she said. "If you see one and it's not embedded, you could pick it off with your fingers or a tissue and flush it down the toilet."
Ticks don't attack you immediately. They tend to crawl on your skin for some time before they bite.
"Once they bite, they have to stay attached for quite a while before they can transmit disease," she explained. "So seeing a tick is not necessarily a cause for alarm."
If you find one, use a tweezer to remove the tick by lifting slowly to extract the mouth.
"They don't want to let go so you are going to feel it," Gallagher advises. "You don't want to kill them with the tweezers as you lift them, that may cause them to spread the disease."
The deer tick and the dog tick has spread throughout Eastern Pennsylvania.
"We've even had birds coming with ticks," Gallagher said. "We've had rabbits come in with ticks. Rabbits are always loaded with fleas and ticks; that's why rabbit hunters shouldn't hunt until after a good frost."
"For years we've been cautioning kids about ticks," Gallagher concluded. "This warning isn't going to change anything for us."