While most of us douse ourselves with insect repellent when we know mosquitoes have gotten bad, we don’t always think about deterring ticks, which in many places are active before we start using bug spray when we hit the hiking trails.
We need to, though, because tick bites can be serious (though not all are). Ticks can carry several diseases, including Lyme, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and anaplasmosis, as well as new pathogens identified in the last two decades. The CDC has found that reports of tick-borne diseases have risen significantly in the United States in the last thirty years, and likely many more cases have gone unreported. Lyme disease cases alone have tripled since 1990.
Here’s what to know to help you protect yourself and your family from tick bites.
Know where ticks live & what they look like
Learning which ticks inhabit your area can help you identify them more easily. Read through the CDC’s overview of ticks that bite humans and carry disease in different parts of the country to familiarize yourself with your region’s ticks.
Note that ticks can carry disease even when they’re immature and very tiny, and spotting them at this stage can take some work. To drive home this point and encourage people to take appropriate prevention measures, the CDC posted a photo of tick nymphs on a poppyseed muffin, highlighting how small these creatures can be (and turning lots of people off poppyseed muffins!). Some full-grown ticks can be as small as a sesame seed, so it’s important to spend some time familiarizing yourself with the ticks in your area so you know what you’re looking for.
Ticks tend to prefer tall grasses, brush, and wooded areas, as well as rock walls, leaf litter, and wood piles. Be extra vigilant if you’ll be in one of these environments. Ticks are much more prevalent at the edges of hiking trails than in the center, so experts advise sticking to the middle of trails as much as possible.
While you may remember to wear protective clothing and bug spray when you head out for a hike in the woods, you may not be as careful when you’re in your own yard or tending the garden. It turns out that many ticks hitch rides on small rodents like mice and squirrels, which can spread them around your yard. Bird feeders are especially attractive to rodents, so be extra careful to check for ticks if you or a neighbor have one.
You can make your yard less tick-friendly by creating a barrier between areas with tall grasses and shrubbery. Experts recommend adding a mulch path at least three feet wide to discourage ticks from entering the areas you use for recreation.
Also take the precautions listed below to help prevent tick bites while you’re working in your yard or out exploring the great outdoors.
Dress appropriately. Wear light-colored clothing to make it easier to spot ticks searching for their next meal. Tuck your pants into your socks to make it more difficult for ticks to access your skin. Experts recommend tucking your shirt into your pants as well, as ticks climb up our bodies looking for exposed skin. For more complete protection, tick specialists advise wearing clothing treated with permethrin spray, which kills ticks on contact.
Note that deer ticks stay active throughout the winter except in extreme cold, so don’t skip tick checks just because it’s chilly out.
Be especially careful to spray shoes and socks with repellent. Tiny tick nymphs, which often carry disease, tend to attach there.
Do a tick check and take a shower. Check clothing and skin for ticks whenever you come in from gardening or walking in wooded or brushy areas. Have someone check in and around your hair, ears, and back. Look under your arms, between your legs, behind your knees, and around your waist, and then hop in the shower. Showering can help wash away ticks that haven’t attached to your skin yet.
You can also roll a lint roller over your skin and clothes to remove ticks that may be too small to see.
Run your clothes through the dryer. The CDC recommends running clothing through a dryer on high heat for ten minutes to kill ticks. Use hot water (above 130 degrees) if you’re washing clothing first, but know that studies show the dry heat of the clothes dryer is more effective.
Check your pets and gear. Make sure ticks haven’t hitched a ride on your dog or backpack. With all that fur, finding ticks on your pets can be difficult. Hosing down dogs before letting them come inside can help.
How to remove a tick
First of all, don’t panic. Not all ticks carry disease, and most diseases will only be transmitted if ticks are left attached under the skin for 24 hours or more. Prompt removal of ticks can minimize disease risk.
The CDC recommends using tweezers to remove any tick you find attached to your skin as soon as possible. Grasp the tick as close to the skin as you can and pull upward with even pressure. Try not to twist or jerk the tick, or mouth parts may break off. If they do, try to remove them as well, but experts say it’s not critical to get them out. They will work their way out as your skin heals.
Wash the bite and your hands with soap and water or rubbing alcohol. Save the tick in a sealed jar for a few weeks. If symptoms develop, your doctor can have the tick tested.
You can get a positive ID and risk assessment from the University of Rhode Island’s Tick Encounter TickSpotters program, which will connect you with a tick expert who can offer guidance based on the information you provide about your tick bite.
You may see irritation at the site, which is normal and should clear up in a few days. If in three to thirty days you develop a rash or fever, see a doctor promptly, as early treatment of diseases like Lyme can reduce their severity. Here are more details on symptoms of Lyme disease to look for from the CDC. Here are other possible diseases ticks can transmit and signs to look for.
Staying vigilant and using these tick-prevention strategies can help reduce your risk of tick bites while enjoying the health benefits of time outdoors this season.