School's out, and temperatures are rising. Summer is the perfect time to get outside and into nature—but watch out for tiny hitchhikers. Unfortunately, as we go out to enjoy the summer sun, so do ticks.
Ticks are found in all areas of the U.S. and are particularly active in the warmer months. They often live in fields and wooded areas and can climb aboard when you brush by vegetation.
These tiny arachnids (like spiders) can carry numerous bacteria and viruses. They cause hundreds of thousands of disease infections in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
While they grow to be only a few millimeters long, their small size makes them hard to detect as they feed on the blood of larger animals.
How to Avoid Ticks
Instead of canceling all your summer adventures, there are steps recommended by the CDC to protect yourself as you go into brushy or wooded areas.
- Wear insect repellent with DEET
- Treat clothing with permethrin (an insecticide)
- Avoid brushing by vegetation and stay in the middle of trails when hiking
- Wear long sleeves and long pants tucked into your socks
- Shower or bathe after being outdoors to wash off any ticks before they attach
- Wash clothes on a hot setting once returning inside
- Perform a "tick check" to inspect your body and your children for ticks
"Probably the most important thing would be just to look over your body after you've been outdoors," recommends Troy Madsen, MD, an emergency physician at University of Utah Health. He recommends feeling through your hair and looking over your skin.
Ticks are small and often cause little to no irritation at the site of attachment. They tend to attach by skin creases near joints and anywhere clothing is tight around your body—like at your waistband. It's also important to check your pets.
What to Do if You Find a Tick on Yourself
You can use this tick bite tool to help you remove an attached tick and determine when to seek health care.
- Remove the tick. You don’t need to rush to urgent care; ticks can be removed at home. "The best thing you can do is use a pair of tweezers and grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible; pull back and remove the tick," Madsen says. Remove the entire tick in one piece and be careful not to leave the head in your skin. Do not burn them or cover them in petroleum jelly. These methods can be dangerous and are not recommended.
- Watch for symptoms. Once a tick has been removed, it's important to consider the possibility that it may have transmitted a virus or bacteria. Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne illness with around 300,000 infections in the U.S. each year, according to the CDC. There are also many other lesser-known tick-borne illnesses found across the country.
Ticks in essentially every region of the U.S. can carry disease. In the Northeast, upper Midwest, and Pacific Coast, there is high prevalence of Lyme disease, anaplasmois, babesiosis, and Powassan virus.In the Southeast, look out for Ehrlichiosis, STARI, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.In the West and Southwest, tick-borne relapsing fever and Colorado tick fever are prevalent. Tularemia can be found across the country.
Each of these diseases can cause similar flu-like symptoms—fever, headache, fatigue, and sometimes nausea. Lyme disease and STARI may also cause a large round rash growing from the site of attachment. Rocky Mountain spotted fever may cause a spotted rash that starts on the hands or wrists.
- Get help. If you notice any of these symptoms, seek help right away. Nearly all these diseases can be treated with antibiotics or other medications, which can clear up symptoms within a few weeks. However, Lyme disease and Powassan virus can both cause long-term symptoms.
- Don’t delay. If you believe you may have contracted any of these illnesses, you should see a doctor for confirmation and treatment right away. Transmission of most of these illnesses takes at least 24 hours. Madsen recommends that if you are in the Northeast, upper Midwest, or Southwest U.S., and a tick has been attached to you for more than a day, you should remove the tick immediately and go to a physician for treatment.
It can be difficult to diagnose any tick-borne illness because symptoms can take weeks to appear. Many people may not connect their flu-like symptoms to a tick bite occurring weeks ago. Many may not have noticed the tick in the first place.
It's important to catch Lyme disease early and treat it with antibiotics. But, even with treatment, a small fraction of patients experience long-term symptoms. These symptoms, including fatigue and arthritis, which can be debilitating.
Spending time outdoors makes contact with ticks likely, but if you take steps to protect yourself, you don't have to let them ruin your summer.