Your greatest risk of being bitten by a blacklegged tick, which transmits Lyme disease and other illnesses, is spring, summer, and fall. But don’t get too complacent during a cold spell. As long as temperatures are above freezing, ticks could be out looking for a blood meal.
That’s why a daily check of your body for ticks is important, especially if you’ve been out raking leaves, where ticks like to hide, or walking in the woods.
HealthCentral spoke with Alison Hinckley, Ph.D., an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Vector-Borne Diseases, about Lyme disease, other tickborne illnesses, and tick bites. She told us what you need to stay safe.
HealthCentral (HC): What do you think is the most important thing for people to know about tickborne diseases?
Dr. Hinckley: Know the early signs. If you get a tick bite, watch for the symptoms of illness, such as rash or fever in the days and weeks that follow; see a health care provider if they develop. Your risk of acquiring a tickborne illness depends on many factors, including where you live, what type of tick bit you, and how long the tick was attached. Many people aren’t even aware that they’ve been bitten by a tick, so if you’ve been in areas where ticks are common and develop those symptoms, see your health care provider.
HC: Most people think of Lyme disease when they think of ticks, but there are many other tickborne infections. What are the most common ones?
Dr. Hinckley: The most common tickborne diseases after Lyme disease are Rocky Mountain spotted fever, anaplasmosis, and ehrlichiosis.
HC: What are the symptoms that should send someone to the doctor?
Dr. Hinckley: If you have been bitten by a tick or have been in tick habitat and have any of these symptoms within three to 30 days, see your doctor:
Fever/chills. With all tickborne diseases, patients can experience fever at varying degrees and time of onset.
Aches and pains. Tickborne disease symptoms include headache, fatigue, and muscle aches. With Lyme disease you may also experience joint pain. The severity and time of onset of those symptoms can depend on the disease and the patient’s personal tolerance level.
HC: What is the single most important thing people can do to prevent getting Lyme disease or another tickborne infection?
Dr. Hinckley: Preventing tick bites is the best way to prevent disease. We recommend that people take the following steps to prevent tick bites:
Use Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellents containing 20 percent or more DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, or 2-undecanone. (EPA’s helpful search tool can help you find the product that best suits your needs. Always follow product instructions.
Check your clothing and body for ticks. Tumble dry clothes in a dryer on high heat for 10 minutes to kill ticks on dry clothing after you come indoors. If the clothes are damp, additional time may be needed.
Shower soon after being outdoors. This is one of the easiest prevention steps you can take. Showering within two hours of coming indoors has been shown to reduce your risk of getting Lyme disease. It may help wash off hard-to-see, unattached ticks and it is a good opportunity to do a tick check.
HC: What do you think is the biggest myth about ticks?
Dr. Hinckley: Many people think that they need to go to the doctor’s office to get a tick removed, but that’s not true. We want people to remove the tick as quickly as possible.
How to remove a tick
Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible.
Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don’t twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouth parts to break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, remove the mouth parts with tweezers. If you are unable to remove the mouth easily with clean tweezers, leave it alone and let the skin heal.
After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water.
Dispose of a live tick by submersing it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag/container, wrapping it tightly in tape, or flushing it down the toilet. Never crush a tick with your fingers.
Avoid folklore remedies such as “painting” the tick with nail polish or petroleum jelly, or using heat to make the tick detach from the skin. Your goal is to remove the tick as quickly as possible – not waiting for it to detach.
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Lauren Arcuri is a freelance writer in northern Vermont. She writes about health and medicine, including neuroscience, microbiology, and genetics. She has written for Pacific Standard, Proto, The University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health White Papers, and many other publications.