A mild winter? Early spring? If you’re a warm-weather outdoor adventure enthusiast — say a regular hiker, avid camper, or you just love walking the woods with your dog — you probably usually light up at the sounds of these words. But there’s another critter that loves these conditions just as much as you: We’re talking about those teeny, tiny blood-sucking pests known as ticks. And, largely as a result of the weather this year, they’re now having a field day.
“Ticks thrive in humidity,” says Carlene Merola, senior specialist in medical operations at Global Rescue. “So this year’s combination of the wet year, mild winter and early spring has created the ideal conditions for an increase in the tick population.”
In fact, experts are predicting this year to be one for the record books, with populations coming in higher than ever across many parts of the U.S. and abroad in places like Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. That translates to higher possibilities of tick-borne diseases — most notoriously Lyme — and the need to be ever vigilant in order to spot these arachnids, often as small as a sesame seed, before they attach to you or another host in your household, like a child or a pet.
Here’s what you need to know in order to identify ticks, how to protect yourself from ticks, and remove a tick should one come aboard your body.
Identifying Ticks: Species You Should Know
What does a tick look like? To an untrained eye, they all probably look alike, but there are actually scores of different types of ticks — roughly 90 different species in the U.S. — that vary in shapes, sizes, and colors.
However, there are eight specific species that you should be aware of because they’re the ones that can make you sick. While you can check out this helpful tick identification guide from The Mayo Clinic, here’s a quick rundown of each, the diseases they can transmit and the locations in which they commonly live:
- Deer Tick (aka Black-Legged Tick): Found in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and Mid-Atlantic, deer ticks tend to be the most feared type of tick because they transmit two types of bacteria that cause Lyme disease. They are also appearing in the west, according to reports.
- Brown Dog Tick: Found throughout the U.S. and world, it seems no location is safe from this type of tick species that is a carrier of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF).
- American Dog Tick (aka Wood Tick): Mainly located east of the Rocky Mountains and also in some limited areas on the Pacific Coast, this species is responsible for spreading Tularemia and RMSF.
- Lone Star Tick: Primarily living east of the Rocky Mountains, but mostly in the Southern U.S., Lone Star ticks transmit bacteria resulting in a whole host of illnesses: Ehrlichiosis; Tularemia; Heartland Virus; Bourbon Virus; Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness (STARI); and even something called Alpha-Gal Syndrome, an allergy to red meat.
- Gulf Coast Tick: Found in coastal areas along the Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico, this species is a carrier of a less severe form of RMSF.
- Rocky Mountain Wood Tick: Mainly populating areas in the U.S. Rocky Mountain states and southwestern Canada, this tick is a carrier of Colorado Tick Fever, RMSF and Tularemia.
- Western Blacklegged Tick: Living along the Pacific Coast (particularly in California), this tick rarely latches on to humans as it prefers small animals. Still, they can be responsible for spreading Anaplasmosis, Babesiosis and Lyme disease.
- Soft Tick: Primarily found in the Western U.S. in mountainous regions, this type of tick — which differs from the above “hard” tick species because they are more flesh-like in appearance — is responsible for spreading Tick-Borne Relapsing Fever.
If traveling to remote areas abroad, consult the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Tick-Borne Diseases Abroad page or, if applicable, chat with your tour operator or guide about tick types and if necessary prevention measures are required.
How to Protect Yourself from Ticks: Clothing, Repellents and Careful Consideration
While all these tick-associated illnesses sound scary, if you find yourself on the receiving end of a fresh bite, don’t panic: It doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to catch a disease. That’s because ticks are not born with this bacteria or that virus. Rather, they transmit diseases by feeding on one infected host and passing along those pathogens onto the next.
No pathogens? No problem. Still, especially in a high tick season like this, it’s necessary to take precautions in order to protect yourself if you’re heading out into tick-heavy territory. Here’s what we suggest:
- Try to Walk in the Center of Trails/Avoid High Grass: Ticks live in grassy and wooded areas, where they set up camp — maybe on a tall blade of grass or leaf litter — near an area where they know potential hosts are roaming (they can actually detect animals’ breath, body heat and vibrations). There, they wait in a position known as “questing” — basically with their arms outstretched to the sky — until someone (animal or human) brushes up against that grass for them to grab, then hitch a ride or settle in.
- Limit the Amount of Exposed Skin (But Tie Up Loose Hair): Ticks are naturally looking for a warm spot on your skin to sink into, so wear enclosed shoes, long-sleeved shirts, and tuck your pants into your socks to deter their advances. And keep your hair tied back or tucked into a hat to avoid giving them any easy platforms to catch.
- Wear Light Colors: It will make ticks immediately easier to spot if they have managed to climb aboard.
- Treat Your Clothing or Consider Repellents: Especially if you’re going to be in the backcountry for a few days, it’s a good idea to apply insecticide permethrin to your gear and clothing as it will still remain protected after several washes (in case things get damp out there). You can also use repellent sprays on skin not covered by clothing — just be sure they’re EPA-registered repellents.
How to Check for Ticks: Start with a Quick Scan Followed by a Full-Body Review
If you’ve been out in potentially tick-infested areas — and that can even just mean your own backyard — you should do a minimum of three tick checks.
- Conduct an Immediate Scan Outside: Before hopping into your car or heading indoors to your home, first check your clothing around your ankles, socks and shoes, waist bands and sleeves, as well as between any layers of your clothing. Next, check your head around your neck, ears and in your hair. Don’t forget to check your gear, as well as any pets that may have been out and about with you.
- Conduct a More Thorough Review Once Inside: Chances are, if you were on a hike or camping trip, you’re going to need to take a shower to clean off. Prior to hopping in, view all parts of your body, using a hand-held or full-length mirror to view any hard-to-see areas, like your back, the back of your calves and knees, as well as within your armpits. Also look in and around your ears and hair once again, around the waist, inside your belly button and between the legs.
- Turn Clothes Inside Out & Hit them With Heat: Take the clothes you were wearing outside, turn them inside out and give them a good shake (do not do so inside as you don’t want the pests in your home). After, throw that clothing in the dryer for at least 10 minutes on high heat — ticks are very sensitive to dryness, so a quick spin will kill them.
How to Remove a Tick Properly: Never Use Your Fingers
If you’ve previously tried folklore remedies, such as “painting” the tick with nail polish or petroleum jelly to suffocate it or using the “hot match” technique to make it back out, stop doing so now. These methods can actually have the opposite effect and cause the tick to burrow deeper and potentially increase the chances of them depositing more of their secretions, the part that carries disease.
According to the CDC, here’s how you should tackle removal:
- Step 1. Get the Proper Tools: While a pair of clean fine-tipped tweezers work just fine, there are plenty of different types of tick-removal tools on the market, including tick keys, tick “scoops” and “twisters.” Never use your fingers. Also have some rubbing alcohol nearby for cleaning the bite after removal.
- Step 2. Pull Steadily and Securely: Grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as you can — near the head or mouth (not the body as this can crush the tick, causing it to spill its stomach contents into the bite wound) — and pull using even pressure. Never wiggle or twist as this can cause the head or mouthpart to break and remain in the skin (but if that does happen, use the tweezers to remove).
- Step 3. Dispose of the Tick and Clean Everything: If there’s no toilet nearby to flush the tick (say you’re out in the woods), place it in rubbing alcohol to kill it or a sealed bag to dispose of later. “Make sure to never crush a tick between your fingers or on your skin to kill it,” says Merola, “as that could expose you to the potential infection of that tick.” After, thoroughly clean the bite area, your hands, as well as your tweezers with alcohol or soap and water.
While it’s natural for a bite area to show some signs of immediate swelling or pain, the development of symptoms like headache, fever, stiff neck, muscle or joint paint or a rash (like the telltale bull’s-eye rash commonly seen from Lyme) in the coming days are what you should be paying close attention. Because that’s when you’ll want to see your doctor — or, if you’re traveling and a member of Global Rescue or have our TotalCare membership, give us a call to review and advise. Luckily, with early detection and treatment, the risk of serious complications greatly diminishes.
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