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Tick populations are increasing in Michigan

A female backlegged tick is on a small branch
Graham Hickling
Adult blacklegged tick on a branch.

Tick populations are continuing to spread across Michigan and are contributing to the spread of disease in the state.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) is confirming Lyme disease in 55 counties this year, up from 45 counties in 2021.

Map of Michigan showing counties with known or potential risk for Lyme disease.
Map of known and potential Lyme disease risk in Michigan.

Researchers have been tracking the spread of ticks in Michigan since 2004. At first, the ticks moved mainly along the shoreline of Lake Michigan.

“It probably took about five, six years for us to find them getting established by Sleeping Bear Dunes,” said Jean Tsao, a professor at Michigan State University’s department of fisheries and wildlife who has studied ticks for 20 years.

Tsao said the tick populations didn’t move inland as quickly, arriving to the Lansing area around 2014.

Now they can be found throughout most of Michigan, with only a few counties left without sightings.

Multiple tick species exist in the state, but only the blacklegged tick, also known as the deer tick, carries Lyme disease in the U.S.

Tsao said a tick usually needs to be embedded for at least 36 hours to transmit Lyme disease.

“The tick takes about three to five days to finish its blood meal,” Tsao said. “If you can stop it before 36 hours, even 48 hours, you will have reduced the chance almost to zero.”

The blacklegged tick can also carry other, rarer diseases, including anaplasmosis, babesiosis, deer-tick virus and ehrlichiosis.

Young backlegged tick next to the tip of a pen for scale.
Graham Hickling
Young blacklegged ticks are very small.

The American dog tick is another widespread tick species in Michigan, and while diseases it transmits to people are rare, it can spread Rocky Mountain spotted fever and tularemia.

The lone star tick is also spreading into southwestern Michigan and is less common than the blacklegged or American dog ticks.

By 2019, scientists were seeing more lone star ticks in Berrien County. Then last summer, Tsao’s students found more in Van Buren and Allegan Counties.

While the lone star tick does not carry Lyme disease, it can transmit alpha-gal syndrome, which causes an allergy to red meat and other products of mammals.

How to track ticks

Tsao advises people to put together a sort of “tick first-aid kit,” both to prevent tick bites and to be prepared if they do get one.

“You’ll have your pointy tweezers, you’ll have a Ziploc bag or a vial to pull the tick off and put it in and save it and then take a picture of it,” she said.

In 2018, Tsao worked with scientists at Columbia University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison on The Tick App, where the public can find information about ticks and submit tick sightings to help with research.

“There’s so much information online about ticks, some of it in varying qualities of reliability,” Tsao said. “A great feature of the app for the public is hopefully they’ll learn how to identify ticks and avoid them, but then if they do get them how to pull them off.”

The picture can then be submitted either to The Tick App or to the MDHHS’s “Got a tick? Submit a pic!”program to get experts’ help with identification.

Michigan Technological University is also studying ticks through a citizen science project called the “Tick Talk Dashboard,” which invites the public to submit ticks to help track the prevalence of tick-borne pathogens.

More information on ticks in Michigan is available on the MDHHS website. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has information on what to do after a tick bite.

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