Avoiding ticks, checking for ticks, and what to do when ticks bite
There are many things to love about the great outdoors. For most people, bugs are not on that list. While most of the crawling things we share the woods with are little more than a nuisance, others bring the threat of illness. While fear of ticks is certainly no reason to avoid spending time outdoors, the risk of tick-borne diseases should not be taken lightly. Read on to learn more about ticks and how you can minimize risks as you explore nature this summer.
Tick Basics: Types, Geography, and Season
While there are more than 90 varieties of ticks found in the United States, neither you nor your pet are likely to encounter most of them. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists seven types of ticks that bite humans and can transmit disease. These are the American Dog Tick, the Blacklegged Tick (also known as the Deer Tick), the Brown Dog Tick, the Gulf Coast Tick, the Lone Star Tick, the Rocky Mountain Wood Tick, and the Western Blacklegged Tick. For more detailed information, including maps and photographs, consult this CDC resource.
While it is possible to encounter a tick outside any time the temperature is above freezing, it is far more likely during the warmer spring, summer, and fall months. Peak tick season ranges from March through October in the southern parts of the country and is shorter in northern regions.
2019 Tick Forecast
Officials predict the 2019 tick season will be slightly less than average. Contrary to popular belief, a severe winter does not mean a low tick season, nor does a mild winter predicate a higher than average number of ticks. The ticks that carry Lyme disease – the black-legged or deer ticks – are resilient to cold. Harsh winters do not reduce their numbers. Instead, tick forecasters look at populations of field mice and acorns.
In an interview for Today, disease ecologist Richard Ostfeld explained that the best predictor of Lyme-carrying tick populations is the abundance of white-footed mice the summer before. The population of white-footed mice is, in turn, determined by the availability of acorns the previous year. Since oak trees don’t shed acorns every year, tick-borne illnesses seem to follow the acorn cycle with a two-year delay.
Even in a below-average tick season, the risk for tick-borne diseases remains and it is important to take precautions to avoid and minimize the risk of tick bites.
As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. While there is no 100% foolproof way to avoid ticks altogether, the following precautions will help you enjoy the outdoors without donating blood to an 8-legged parasite.
- Avoid spending time in tall grass or sitting directly on the ground. Ticks don’t jump or fall out of trees. They climb weeds and blades of grass and sit with their front legs out, waiting for something they can grab onto. Avoid fields of tall grass and hike in the middle of the trail whenever possible.
- Wear light-colored clothing that covers your body completely. If a tick gets on your clothing, it will need to crawl to find a way to your skin. Light-colored clothing makes the ticks easier to see and remove. It is especially helpful to tuck pant legs into socks to prevent them from crawling up under pant legs.
- Use insect repellent. A variety of natural and chemical repellents can reduce your risk of exposure to ticks, but beware of relying on repellent alone. Most repellents, including those with DEET, are not toxic to ticks – meaning they can just find an untreated area of your body to bite.
- Treat gear with permethrin. Camping gear and hiking clothes should be treated with permethrin – an insecticide that will kill ticks outright. People who spend a lot of time outside can consider buying clothes, shoes, and socks already treated with permethrin.
- Keep it dry and sunny. Tick nymphs lose moisture quickly and can’t survive more than 8 hours in less than 80% humidity. For this reason, they avoid sunny areas and prefer moist leaf piles in shady areas. While ticks can survive a cycle in the washing machine, they will die after a few minutes in the dryer. After spending time in the outdoors, a quick cycle in the dryer will kill any ticks hiding in your clothing.
- Rinse off as soon as you can. When you’ve been in situations that may have exposed you to ticks, remove and check clothing as quickly as possible. Perform a tick check and go for a swim or take a shower to rinse away any ticks that may not have attached yet.
How to Perform a Tick Check
Ticks thrive in warm, moist, dark areas; so be sure to check carefully for ticks in places they would enjoy most. The insides of joints, behind your ears, and anywhere covered with hair are ideal places for a tick to hide and have a snack at your expense. Since these can sometimes be difficult places to check yourself, use a mirror or ask a loved one to help you. Children and pets should be thoroughly checked. The risk of disease transmission increases the longer the tick is attached. The risk of contracting Lyme disease is very low if the tick is found and removed within 24 hours.
Tick Bites: How to Remove a Tick
If your tick check reveals a tick that has bitten and attached itself, it is important to properly remove the tick as soon as possible. There are a lot of myths and misinformation circulating about tick removal, and some methods can increase the risk of disease transmission.
There are many variations on the idea of encouraging the tick to leave on its own. It seems logical and feels easier, which is why different methods of suffocating or irritating the tick are so popular. From burning it with a match to submerging it in alcohol or smothering it with petroleum jelly, there are certainly a lot of ways to torture a tick into leaving your body. With the recent popularity of essential oils, new methods have been circulating, such as placing a few drops of peppermint essential oil on the embedded tick. As shown in this viral video, the tick will quickly and easily remove itself. Sounds great! So what’s the problem?
All of these methods cause the tick to salivate and regurgitate into the bite before leaving, which significantly increases the risk of disease transmission.
Experts agree, grabbing the tick with a pair of fine-tipped tweezers and pulling (not twisting) it out is the safest way to remove a tick. Twisting increases the risk that the head will separate from the body, leaving the head stuck in the skin, which can cause infection. Pull the tick out with fine-tipped tweezers and clean the area thoroughly with rubbing alcohol.
Special tick removal tools are available, though most people do not need them. These can be handy to have if you spend a lot of time in tick-prone areas and will often need to remove them from small children or pets. For an excellent review of tick removal tools, read this article from Mom Goes Camping.
What to do next
Once you have removed the tick, do not try to crush it with your fingers. This increases the chance of spreading any diseases the tick may be carrying. The safest way to kill a tick is to drown it in alcohol, flush it down the toilet, or carefully wrap it in tape.
It is possible to test a tick for diseases. If you plan to do this, keep the tick alive in a sealed container with a blade of grass. There is usually a charge for tick testing, and there are several labs that offer this service. Sometimes local health departments offer tick testing, which is often a cheaper option. Consult with your doctor or other local authorities to find out what is available in your area. Knowing what diseases a tick may have carried can help you begin to treat any potential infection even before you have any symptoms.
Document your tick bite so that you can give your doctor all the information if needed. Take a picture of the tick, if possible, and write down the date and location of the bite. Contact your doctor if you experience any of the symptoms of Lyme disease or any symptoms that may indicate other tick-borne illnesses.
For more information
TickEncounter Research Center (University of Rhode Island)
The Tick Project at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies