How to Deal with Ticks
September 7, 2022
Spending time outdoors can be one of the most enriching, fun, and memorable activities. You are out in nature as well, so there’s a number of considerations, such as bringing water to stay hydrated, protection from the weather…and when you’re in wooded areas, ticks! Those fun, tiny creatures sure do love to latch on to you, don’t they?
If you have any experience at all being in the outdoors, you know what we mean. But it can be relatively simple to avoid tick exposure. This guide will give you some helpful information to make your time outdoors as fun and tick-free as possible.
What Are Ticks, Anyway?
Related to spiders and mites, ticks are parasitic, meaning they rely on a warm-blooded “host” in order to feed. They can attach themselves to all sorts of animals, from birds to dogs to deer to humans. They tend to inhabit wooded areas and settle in leaf piles, overgrown parts of a yard, and even woodpiles.
Hiking or camping outdoors for an extended period of time can increase your chances of coming into contact with one or more of these little buggers. Having said that, you can still be exposed to ticks from everyday activities such as gardening, mowing the lawn, or playing in a yard or park.
Most ticks have eight legs and flat, oval bodies. They are very small, so often times you may not even notice you have one. Mosquitos are the only creature responsible for passing on more diseases to humans than ticks, so it’s helpful to look for signs that a tick has taken up residence on you, and how to quickly remove it. Or better yet, avoid getting one on you at all!
While many different kinds of ticks exist around the world, the ones in North America can be divided into two categories: Argasidae (soft tick), and Ixodidae (hard tick). It’s estimated that about 900 species of ticks can be found around the globe, but only a few of these can actually transmit diseases to humans.
Here in the U.S., the most common types of ticks are Blacklegged (deer) ticks, American dog ticks (also known as wood ticks), Lone Star and Rocky Mountain ticks, among others.
- Blacklegged Ticks have reddish-brown bodies and black legs. These guys are known to transmit Borrelia burgdorferi, which can cause Lyme disease. They are not seasonal, meaning they are out and about throughout the year, even in winter.
- American dog ticks have flat, dark brown bodies. However, the females can have a more off-white cast. Spring and summer are this species’ most active time of year, and can primarily be found throughout the East and Gulf Coast, along the Pacific Coast, and as far north as Canada and Alaska.
- Lone Star ticks have a reddish-brown color, with the females bearing a white mark resembling a star (hence the name, not the state as most might think). This species can pass on a number of illnesses to its humans, and are mostly found from early Spring through Fall throughout the eastern U.S., particularly in the Southeast.
- Rocky Mountain wood ticks are very similar in appearance to the American dog tick. They are active year-round, though less prevalent in summer. Mostly they are found in scrublands and grasslands, lightly wooded areas, and at elevations under 4,000 feet.
Why Ticks Can Be Dangerous
It’s not so much the actual tick bite that is dangerous. Tick bites don’t hurt and are less noticeable than mosquito bites. But the bacteria that can travel into the skin from a tick to its host is what you should be concerned about. However, it’s important to note that not all ticks carry diseases. If you are bitten by a tick, by all means do not panic, and even if you do fall ill after a tick bite, the severity of the illness can vary considerably from person to person.
While the potential is there for certain species of ticks to pass along bacteria, diseases, and even other parasites, there are things you can do to keep these in check. In certain cases, however, a tick bite can manifest into a long-term illness such as Lyme disease. The most common diseases spread by a tick can include, but are not limited to:
- Anaplasmosis. Contracted from a blacklegged tick bite, symptoms are similar to the flu and can be treated with antibiotics.
- Babesiosis. Also from the blacklegged tick, this one is more serious and can be life-threatening to the elderly or those with compromised immune systems. This illness can be treated with prescription medications, usually antibiotics.
- Colorado Tick Fever. Caused by the Rocky Mountain wood tick, for most people this is a mild illness presenting typical flu-like symptoms.
- Ehrlichiosis. Caused by the Lone Star tick, this also presents flu-like symptoms, and may also cause a rash. Often treated with antibiotics.
- Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. This is one of the more serious illnesses that ticks can transmit, and several kinds of ticks can pass it on to humans, including the American dog and Rocky Mountain tick. Symptoms are similar to meningitis, the flu, and are often accompanied by a rash or red dots (hence the name spotted fever). Get treatment as soon as possible, which is usually in the form of antibiotics.
- Lyme disease. Probably the most severe (and well-known) of illnesses contracted by ticks. The Blacklegged tick is the most common culprit. Lyme disease can be difficult to diagnose, causing a range of uncomfortable symptoms. They can be basic flu-like symptoms, foggy memory, nervous system issues, cognitive problems, chronic joint pain, heart issues, and others. The disease is most commonly treated with antibiotics, and treatment should happen sooner rather than later.
How to Check for and Remove Ticks
When you are exposed to any situation described above, it’s always a good idea to check your body for ticks.
- Check your clothing. While your clothes can help shield you from tick bites, you’ll still want to carefully check your clothes so that you don’t track any ticks inside where they can bite you or someone else later. Same with backpacks, etc. Washing and/or drying these items on “hot” will typically be enough to eliminate any ticks.
- Check your skin. Carefully inspect every part of your body: scalp, neck, armpits, ears, elbows, and behind the knees. Ticks are particularly attracted to warm, dark, places – the nooks and crannies of your body you might easily miss. Look for dark spots or dark, raised bumps. Have a buddy check you over, or use a mirror to make sure you see every part of your body. They can be as small as a poppy seed, so be thorough.
- Take a hot shower. Heat will drive them off your body or kill them (this is also a perfect time to check for them). They can fall off your body in the shower, and/or be easy to remove when the skin is softened by water.
- Check your pets. Yes, your dog can get them, too! Ticks do not discriminate, so take the time to thoroughly check your pet as well. Same is true for cats that spend any time outdoors.
- Remove ticks as soon as you see one. Use a pair of clean, sterilized tweezers, and tug gently but firmly on the tick’s head, which will release its hold on your skin. Using the old folklore methods of petroleum jelly or nail polish will NOT work. Try your best not to crush or wound the tick, as doing so may introduce more harmful bacteria to you. Once the tick is removed, thoroughly clean the area and follow up with rubbing alcohol to disinfect. Then dispose of the tick by sealing it in a plastic baggie, or flushing it down the toilet. If you have flu-like symptoms or a rash, contact a medical professional right away.
How to Avoid Ticks
- Wear protective clothing.
- Stay on the path. When hiking, always stay on the designated path and not wander around in vegetation.
- Use DEET insect repellent.
- Clean all of your belongings after a camping trip or being outdoors in wooded areas.