Be prepared to encounter ticks this season as COVID-19 restrictions relax and people return to the outdoors.
Avoiding the small, eight-legged parasites is becoming increasingly challenging and rates of tick-borne illnesses, including Lyme disease, are on the rise, reportsTrusted Source the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“We are seeing more and more people heading outdoors after being housebound for so long, and even for those who typically don’t spend time outdoors but do now given our current physical distancing restrictions, you really cannot eliminate coming into contact with ticks,” Timothy Sellati, PhD, the chief scientific officer at the Global Lyme Alliance, told Healthline.
Experts note, however, that protecting yourself is not only important but quite doable.
“You can take steps to reduce the chance of being bitten by ticks,” Sellati said.
The first step is understanding the current risks associated with ticks and tick-borne illnesses.
The typical habitat for a tick is outdoors in trees, tall grasses, underbrush, leaf piles, and shrubs. Think hiking and walking trails, wooded areas, grassy parks, and beaches.
However, tick populations and tick-borne illnesses are increasingly complex and more widespread across the United States, the CDC also reportsTrusted Source.
Disease transmission is also influenced by multiple factors beyond tick presence. Sellati said the spread of ticks happens in the following ways:
- changes in land-use patterns
- expansion of host populations such as mice, chipmunks, and deer on which ticks feed
- climate change, which results in milder winters and new areas that are more hospitable for ticks to survive
“I do foresee the trend toward more tick-borne illnesses continuing. One of the main reasons is because I anticipate continued geographic spread of ticks,” said Sellati. “This geographic spread represents multiple tick species that carry multiple tick-borne illnesses in addition to Lyme disease.”
“Another factor for a potential increase in disease follows a recent study out of Connecticut that showed that half of all adult deer ticks collected were infected with Lyme disease,” he said.
“This is a scary number,” he said.
Not all ticks transmit disease to humans and not all bites result in illness.
The species of ticks that do transmit disease to humans range in color, shape, size, and associated health risks.
Some common diseases you can contract from tick bites include:
- Lyme disease
- Rocky Mountain spotted fever
- Colorado tick fever
These illnesses have different symptoms ranging from fever to body rash to swollen lymph nodes. Symptoms may occur anywhere from a few days to weeks after exposure.
Other potential symptoms of tick-borne diseases can include:
- red spot or rash near the bite site
- neck stiffness
- muscle or joint pain or aches
Currently, 30,000 casesTrusted Source of Lyme disease are reported across the United States each year, but the actual number is said by experts to be higher.
Dr. Alan Taege, an infectious disease expert at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, told Healthline that Lyme disease is spreading to additional areas of the country, and with more emphasis on outdoor activity it’s anticipated that the number of cases of this particular tick-borne illness will increase.
It is important to contact your doctor after a suspected tick bite, even if you can’t find the tick, you successfully remove the tick, and you do not experience sudden or multiple symptoms.
Lyme disease has three stages and if untreated can cause flu-like symptoms, mood changes, and cognitive decline. It is spread through deer or black-legged ticks infected by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi. B. burgdorferi.
These ticks feed upon infected mice, deer, or birds and transmit the bacteria to humans through biting.
Preventing tick bites means planning and preparing before heading outdoors.
“Ideally, wear long pants tucked into shoes or hiking boots and long-sleeved light-colored shirts,” says Taege.
“Use insect repellents that contain DEET on exposed skin and permethrin containing repellents on clothing,” he said. “When returning home, always do a tick check.”
Sellati says the Global Lyme Alliance teaches about preventing tick bites by stressing the importance of being tick “AWARE.”
Being tick “AWARE” stands for:
- avoiding areas where ticks live, like long grass
- wearing light-colored clothing and long pants
- applying EPA-approved tick repellent
- removing clothing upon entering the home and drying on high heat
- examining yourself and your pets for ticks daily
A proper tick check involves a head-to-toe self-examination.
The alliance says to check for tiny dark spots and feel for bumps as well as look at the following 10 common places ticks can be found:
- in and behind ears
- behind neck
- under arms
- between fingers
- waist and back
- belly button
- pelvic and groin area
- behind knees
- between toes
“If a tick is found, carefully remove the tick with proper technique,” says Taege. “When removed the same day, there is very little chance of becoming infected.”
Removing a tick requires the following items:
- fine-tipped tweezers
- rubbing alcohol (or soap and water)
- a small jar or container with lid
Depending on the location and size of the tick, you may also need a mirror or an extra person to help.
Take the tweezers and gently grab the tick as close to your skin as possible. Avoid clamping or ripping motions, as they could crush or break the tick. Slowly pull back with even pressure until the entire tick (body and head) is removed.
Swiftly place the tick into the jar or container and secure the lid. Wipe the area with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.
Experts advise to keep the tick in the sealed container in case symptoms arise and diagnosis is required.