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Rain is about to set off the 'tick time bomb' in California

Bay Area outdoor lovers welcomed the first storms of the season with mixed emotions. California's parched landscapes clearly need the water, but then again, it'll put a literal damper on our time in nature. And even when storms pass, some fear that a new problem will emerge.

"While I'm very excited about [the Bay Area storms], it also means mountain biking season is over with the dogs, because rain brings the much dreaded and hated ticks!!!" MaiTheDane tweeted earlier this week. "I absolutely hate them with a venom," she continued in a comment.

Does the rain actually bring out more ticks than usual, though? And if so, what does that mean for 2021, a year that the Weather Channel recently announced would turn the United States into a "tick time bomb?"

To find out just how bad things might get, tick-wise, SFGATE contacted Daniel Salkeld, a research scientist who has been studying the disgusting creatures for the past 15 years.

Salkeld authored a recent and terrifying study on suitable tick habitats in California, and was also part of a team that just published a new research paper about the importance of citizen science when it comes to reporting ticks. Salkeld didn't have any good news, but he tried to keep the mood light.

"The adult western black-legged ticks emerge after the first rains of the fall in California," he wrote in an email. "And β€” amusingly enough β€” that's normally around Halloween. Blood-sucking ghouls and all!" The rains bring humidity, which the ticks prefer, he continued, but the rain doesn't actually increase their numbers. That's determined by the weather patterns during the years the ticks were developing.

"But for someone hiking, yes, ticks will have gone from practically zero a couple of weeks ago to being out," he wrote. "And their numbers will probably be increasing through January."

As if that wasn't bad enough, a study by the Environmental Protection Agency has found that warming temperatures associated with climate change are projected to expand the range of habitat favorable to ticks. That expansion will, in turn, contribute to the spread of Lyme disease, an infection characterized by fever, headache, fatigue and sometimes a skin rash.

Left untreated, Lyme disease can spread to joints, the heart and the nervous system. In rare cases, it can be fatal.

Not all tick encounters result in Lyme disease, however. Of the 48 species of ticks in California, only six have demonstrated serious interest in sucking human blood. Only one of those, the western black-legged tick, is known to carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.

Pacific Coast ticks and American dog ticks are also rampant on the California coast, though. They are known to carry spotted fever pathogens and occasionally transmit tularemia, a rare infectious disease that attacks the skin, eyes, lymph nodes and lungs.

So what can a concerned person do about all of this?

Well, for the past few years, some citizen scientists have actually been documenting tick presence all over the United States. The Bay Area Lyme Foundation collected this data, and on Tuesday, it posted interactive maps from the project that are helpful in gauging the risk for encountering ticks by county.

Citizen science plays a critical role in understanding where harmful ticks might be found, a new research paper found.

To protect yourself and your family from ticks, a commonly available substance called permethrin can help, according to experts. You spray it on your clothes and let them dry for a day. Ticks will die when they come in contact with the sprayed clothing, and you can also buy clothes pre-treated with the chemical.

If you or your dog is bitten by a tick, grab the tick's head with a pair of tweezers. Pull it straight out. Don't twist the tick's body, which might cause the head to detach while still embedded in the skin.

If that sounds hard, maybe a family member or a neighbor can help. Just keep in mind that it'll mostly be over by January.

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