Health & Fitness

Idaho is home to plenty of ticks but no Lyme disease, experts say — at least for now

In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed 15 cases of Lyme disease in Idaho, the most reports of the tick-borne disease in the state over the past decade. At the same time, the agency reported that the two types of ticks that spread the Lyme disease bacteria — blacklegged, or deer, ticks and western blacklegged ticks — don’t live in Idaho.

So what’s going on?

Niki Forbing-Orr, spokeswoman for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, said there’s nuance in the CDC’s reports.

“Cases of Lyme disease are in Idaho, in people who picked it up in states that have the tick that transmit the disease,” Forbing-Orr told the Statesman in an email. “That tick (that transmits Lyme disease) is not found in Idaho.”

Lyme disease is perhaps the most feared of all tick-borne diseases. According to the Mayo Clinic, the disease can be difficult to diagnose and cause symptoms ranging from rash to paralysis and memory issues years after infection. The illness affects more than 30,000 people in the U.S. each year, according to CDC data, most of them in the Northeast.

But Forbing-Orr said it’s not the primary concern here.

“In Idaho, public health officials tend to be most concerned with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, tick-borne relapsing fever, and tularemia,” she said.

IDHW tracks incidences of those diseases, though there are usually fewer than 10 reports of each per year.

That doesn’t mean Idahoans can be lax on their tick checks, however.

Shirley Luckhart, an entomology professor at the University of Idaho, said it’s possible that the Lyme disease-bearing tick species could make its way to Idaho.

“We are certainly watching range expansion of many tick species in the U.S. now,” Luckhart said in an email, “so there is always the concern that Ixodes scapularis, the black-legged deer tick common in the East, and Ixodes pacificus, the black-legged deer tick common in California and western Washington, could invade new areas in our region by range expansion or by being carried on dogs or other animals that are transported from areas that are infested with these tick species.”

It’s even possible that range has already expanded to include Idaho, Luckhart said. Despite the CDC records on tick-borne illness, the research on the ticks themselves isn’t as comprehensive as scientists like Luckhart would like to see.

“Here in the Northwest, we are horribly under-resourced for tracking native and invasive tick species and the pathogens they may carry, so our ability to answer these questions is exceptionally limited and based on very, very sparse data,” Luckhart said.

She’s working to secure federal funding for research in the Northwest on tick- and mosquito-borne diseases, she said.

In the meantime, IDHW offers several tips to keep ticks at bay:

For both mosquitoes and ticks, use insect repellent approved by the EPA on exposed skin and clothing. Follow instructions on the product label, especially if you’re applying it to children.

Ticks will be more visible if you wear light-colored shirts and pants outdoors.

Check for and remove ticks from your clothing, body, hair and pets when you have been in tick habitat. (Which includes your backyard!)

If a tick is biting you, use a fine tweezers or notched tick extractor to remove it as close to the skin as possible. Pull upward with a steady, even pressure, being careful not to break off the head or squeeze, crush, or puncture the body of the tick. Disinfect the bite site and wash your hands with soap and water.

Talk to your veterinarian about tick prevention products for your pets. Ticks can hitch a ride on your pet and end up in your home.

Related stories from Idaho Statesman

Nicole Blanchard is the Idaho Statesman’s outdoors reporter. She grew up in Idaho, graduated from Idaho State University and Northwestern University and frequents the trails around Boise as much as she can.