Anyone who spends a lot of time outdoors knows how scary the thought of ticks are. These sleek little vampire-like creatures are so minuscule, yet horrifying to most people because of the potential dangers they pose.
If you don’t take precautions while camping, hiking or even just walking into your backyard, you put yourself at risk of being bitten by ticks and contracting very serious illnesses such as Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Over the years, I’ve had more than a few close encounters with ticks, and I’ve done my best to learn from each of those experiences.
Here’s my complete guide to tick safety to help you stay safe on your next outdoor adventure.
Avoid The Tick Hotspots
The first and most obvious way to prevent tick bites is by staying away from all high-risk areas. When outdoors, avoid tall grass, shrubs, bushes, leaf litter and all types of un-groomed vegetation. These are the places where ticks camp out and wait for potential hosts to pass by.
Whenever you’re hiking, always stay in the center of the trail. Avoid sitting on the floor, especially for long periods of time. April through September is considered to be prime tick season in most areas, though tick bites can happen at any time of year. I once found a tick crawling up my leg while hiking in late October, so you should never let your guard down.
The southwest and east coast of the United States are generally the most prominent areas for tick borne illnesses- most notably Lyme disease, babesiosis and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
Remember that ticks aren’t exclusive to the woods. They often inhabit residential neighborhoods as well. This means your backyard, front lawn or local park may contain ticks.
Protecting Yourself From Ticks
Ticks are masters at hiding in plain sight, so avoiding them isn’t always possible. This is why it’s important to take preventative measures whenever spending time outdoors.
Always wear long sleeves and pants instead of shorts, regardless of how hot the weather is. Wear long socks and tuck the bottom of your pants into them. If you want to be extra cautious, you can also put tape around the top of each sock.
Wear light-colored clothes. This will make it easier to spot ticks that are crawling on you. You should also wear a hat to prevent ticks from crawling into your hair. Avoid open-toed shoes and never go barefoot.
It’s usually best to use bug spray with DEET in it. This should be applied to your skin every 2 to 3 hours, preferably in a warm environment. Make sure that the product you choose lists all of the ingredients and their percentages.
You shouldn’t use a tick repellent spray that contains OLE or PMD on children under 3 years old. When it comes to your clothes and gear, it’s best to use a spray with 0.5% permethrin in it.
If you’re afraid of the chemicals that are found in store-bought tick repellents, you can always make your own. Here’s a tutorial on how to do that:
Once You Go Indoors
Once you return home from the outdoors, the first thing you need to do is shower. If there are any ticks that haven’t yet latched on to you, the hot water will likely knock them off. Showering immediately after returning home reduces your chances of contracting Lyme disease.
The shower is also a great opportunity to perform a full tick check. This is best when done in the nude, because ticks have no bounds when it comes to where they’ll settle.
Here are the main areas to check for ticks:
- Under your arms.
- Inside your belly button.
- Inside and around your ears.
- Between your legs.
- Behind your knees.
- Around your waist.
- Around your head and in your hair.
Perform your tick check by both examining visually in the mirror and performing a touch test. Feel your entire body for any small lumps or hard spots. For areas that are difficult to see, you can use a handheld mirror. Check your scalp by using a fine-tooth comb to part your hair.
Once you take your clothes off, immediately throw them into the drier- yes, before you wash them. I say this because the washing machine will not kill ticks. You essentially need to dry them out and fry them to death. Throw all of your outside clothes into the direr for 10 minutes, then wash them with hot water afterward.
This brings me to the scariest experience I’ve ever had with a tick, which occurred in my own bedroom. I was sitting at my desk one night, nonchalantly writing an article when I had the sudden urge to scratch my back. As I ran my fingers over the tattoo on my right shoulder, I felt an unusual, scab-like bump. I peeled it off and was absolutely horrified to discover that it was a tick. Somehow, the tick had settled directly on my tattoo, where it would have remained completely camouflaged if I hadn’t grazed my fingers over it.
I tell you this story because, at the time, I had been wearing a pair of pants which I had worn on a hike several days earlier. The pants had gone through the washing machine, but not the drier- so the tick survived. It must have been in for the long haul, camping out in my closet for days and waiting for me to put those pants back on.
Protecting Your Pets From Tick Bites
If you’re a pet owner, tick prevention is something you should take very seriously. Whether you take your furry companion on hikes with you or you only let them out into your backyard, your pet is probably exposed to ticks.
It’s important to speak with your vet about which preventative measures to take. With dogs, it’s usually as simple as administering a monthly, topical flea and tick medication. With cats, you should consult your vet before applying preventative medication. Even if you use tick protection for your pet, it’s important that you check them thoroughly after spending time outdoors.
Keep your animals from wandering into tall grass, playing in leaf piles or walking through shrubs. You should be especially careful with long or curly-haired dogs, as this will make ticks harder to find. Just like you would do with yourself, use a fine-tooth comb to look over your pet’s entire body. Here are the main areas to look out for:
- Behind, around and inside the ears.
- Around the eyelids.
- Around the tail.
- In between the legs.
Unfortunately, there are currently no vaccines for most tick-borne illnesses in dogs. Symptoms can take anywhere from 1 to 3 weeks to appear, so you should always keep an eye on your dog’s behavior and appetite. If you notice any abnormalities, contact your vet immediately.
Protecting Your Backyard From Ticks
You’ll never be able to fully guarantee that your backyard is tick free. However, when you take precautions, you can make your property much less habitable for ticks.
First and foremost, you need to keep your grass, hedges and shrubs well-trimmed. Ticks love tall grass because it gives them better access to potential hosts. If your backyard looks like a jungle, there’s a pretty good chance that you have some ticks hiding out. Break out that lawn mower once a week if you can. Rake all leaf litter. Make sure the edge of your property is well-groomed as well, especially if your yard borders the woods.
Create a barrier between the grassy areas of your lawn and the recreational areas such as patios and playgrounds. Use stones, gravel or wood chips to create a 3-foot-wide divider in between these sections. This will help to prevent ticks from migrating. Keep these recreational areas away from trees and make sure they’re exposed to the sun. Ticks don’t like sunlight.
Don’t leave messy piles of wood lying around in your yard. These make great homes for mice, which are targets for ticks. In fact, ticks often contract Lyme disease from mice. If you have a lot of firewood, make sure it’s neatly stacked with no gaps in between logs.
If you live in an area where deer are prominent, install a fence in your yard to prohibit them from entering. Deer are another major target for ticks. Also, don’t leave around any garbage, toys or old furniture. These are all great places for ticks to hide.
You can use aracides (pesticides specifically for ticks and mites) in your yard, but I wouldn’t recommend doing so. They won’t completely eradicate the problem and they can be harmful to the environment (or to your pets and family!). If you do decide to use aracides, check in with the EPA and your state’s laws to be sure of what’s allowed in your ecosystem.
When You Find A Tick On Yourself
Even if you take all the precautions in the world, there may come a time when you find a tick crawling on yourself or even actively feeding from you. If you do- don’t panic!
It usually takes a tick 36 hours to transmit Lyme disease, so if you find and successfully remove it before then, your chances of contracting a tick borne illness is reduced. Tick removal must be done carefully.
If the tick is still crawling on your skin and hasn’t yet bitten you, you’re pretty much in the clear from becoming ill. However, it’s still not a good idea to touch it with your bare hands. The best method I’ve found for removing unattached ticks is by using tape or a lint roller. Lightly touch the top of the tick with the adhesive layer and it should come right off. Then you may carefully dispose of it.
Removing a tick that has already attached itself to your skin is a bit more tricky. It’s absolutely vital that you remove the tick immediately.
A few months ago, I discovered a deer tick on my back after it had been attached for nearly 24 hours. I was in the car when I found it. I had no tweezers. I had no one to help me. It was in the most awkward position possible and there was no way to remove it without a mirror and tweezers.
I had no choice but to speed home and remove it as soon as possible. Here’s what it looked like while lodged in my skin:
Don’t fall for the urban myths about tick removal. Never light a tick with a match or coat it with nail polish. This will probably just aggravate it, causing the tick to eject more saliva into your bloodstream.
Instead, you need to grab a pair of tweezers. Ticks have mouth parts with barbs on them. This is how they stay so firmly embedded into your skin. Using the tweezers, grab the tick as closely to your skin as you can. Aim for its mouth parts.
Pull straight back in a careful and steady motion. Don’t just carelessly rip the tick off and don’t twist it. Remember that they have barb-like feeders, so they know how to hold on tightly. It may be difficult (and a bit painful) to pull a tick from your skin, but remember: the quicker you get it out, the safer you’ll be.
Never squeeze or crush a tick that’s feeding, as this may cause it to inject its saliva into your bloodstream at a faster rate. The tick’s saliva is what transmits pathogens that cause diseases such as Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and babeosis.
As soon as you’ve removed the tick, wash the area of the bite with warm water and gentle soap. Then, apply antiseptic. You might experience a bit of pain or see a small wound at the site of the bite. This is normal. Here’s what mine looked like:
If the tick has been on for 24 hours or more, it’s a good idea to bring the tick to your doctor so they can send it out to a lab for analysis. They’ll likely be able to tell if you if the tick was infected with Lyme disease or any other illnesses.
You should watch the site of the bite for at least 2 weeks to see if an expanding rash appears. If there’s a rash that doesn’t appear to expand in size after several days/weeks, it may just be a reaction to the tick bite itself. Look out for flu-like symptoms such as fever, body aches and chills. Not all Lyme disease infections involve a skin rash.
Lyme disease is treatable and it’s rarely deadly, though the illness can be quite debilitating. Up to 20% of Lyme disease patients experience long-lasting symptoms. The earlier the infection is caught, the easier treatment will be.
Disposing Of A Tick
Over the years, I’ve heard dozens of different techniques for how to get rid of a tick. The CDC’s method has always worked the best for me, and that’s what I’d recommend using.
Here’s what you do: put several drops of rubbing alcohol into a sealable bag. Then, drop the tick into the alcohol and seal the bag. If you want to be extra careful, you can also tape the bag shut. Then, throw the bag away.
As an alternative method, you can stick the tick to a piece of tape and fold it over, ensuring that it’s covered with an adhesive layer on all sides. If you plan on taking the tick to a doctor for analysis, place the tape into a sealable bag and keep it in a safe location.
A Closer Look At Ticks And Their Behavior
Now that we’ve discussed the main ways to avoid ticks, let’s learn a bit more about these stealthy creatures.
Contrary to popular belief, ticks are not insects. They’re arachnids, just like spiders and scorpions. They have 4 legs and no antennae. To the untrained eye, a tick may look a bit like a spider or a flea. They can be identified by their tear drop shape and flattened body. However, if a tick has already been feeding, its body will be much more plump and round.
There are hundreds of different species of tick found globally, but here are some of the most prevalent ones in the United States:
- Deer Tick or Black Legged Tick (Ixodes scapularis) – These ticks are the primary transmitters of Lyme disease and babeosis. They’re found in the eastern and central United States, but they’re most prominent in the northeast. The deer tick is usually about the size of a sesame seed and the rear of its body has a reddish tint. With a life cycle that lasts 2 years, these types of ticks feed only 3 times throughout their lives.
- Dog Tick (Dermacentor variabilis) – Mostly found throughout the eastern half of the United States (and California), the dog tick can transmit Tularemia and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (ironically, they’re not found in the Rocky Mountain region of the United States). They have a brownish color with white markings and they range from 5 to 15 millimeters in size. As its name suggests, this type of tick loves to feed on dogs.
- Lone Star Tick (Amblyomma americanum) – The Lone Star Tick is found throughout the entire east coast, the southeastern United States and as far west as Texas. These ticks are quite aggressive and they can transmit Heartland virus, Buorbon virus and several other tick borne illnesses. Their bites are quite irritating on their own and may cause a rash that is not indicative of illness. They have brown bodies and females can be identified by a single, white dot on their back.
As stated previously, ticks transmit pathogens through their saliva. This saliva is quite interesting, because it contains anesthetic properties. This makes it so that the host can’t feel when they’re being bitten. There’s usually no pain or itching whatsoever.
Ticks can’t jump and they can’t fly. Instead, they find their hosts through a process called “questing.” This is when a tick climbs to the edge of a blade of grass or piece of vegetation with its front legs extended outward, as shown below.
Once a worthy candidate brushes up against it, the tick will immediately latch on to its host. It will then crawl around, searching from a sufficient spot to feed from- preferably a warm, moist area. It may take a tick anywhere from 2 to 10 minutes to begin feeding.
Surprisingly, ticks don’t have eyes. They actually sense their hosts through their scents, body heat and moisture- a shocking detail that’s sure to make your skin crawl.
Despite their tiny size, ticks are some of the scariest (and most dangerous) creatures that most of us will encounter in the outdoors. Over the years, I’ve found a total of around 15 ticks on my person. Luckily, I’ve been able to avoid all tick borne illnesses up until this point.
There are over 14,000 reported cases of Lyme disease within the United States every year, but all cases are preventable when you take the right precautions.
Always wear the proper tick repellent when spending time outdoors, always perform full tick checks (on yourself and your pets) and always remember how to carefully remove ticks that have bitten you. These teeny tiny suckers should never deter you from spending time outdoors.