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 these 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 CDC.
They grow to be only a few millimeters long and are much smaller when young. 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 Dr. Troy Madsen, MD, an emergency physician with 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 remove the tick yourself at home,” advised Madsen. “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.”
Make sure you remove the entire tick in one piece, being careful not to leave the head in your skin. There are many other ways people may try to remove ticks. Maybe you’ve heard of burning them or covering them in petroleum jelly. These methods can be dangerous and are not recommended.
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, according to the CDC. 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.
Nearly all these diseases can be treated with antibiotics or other medications, and symptoms of most will clear up within a few weeks, according to the CDC. However, Lyme disease and Powassan virus can both cause long-term symptoms.
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, can be debilitating.
Powassan virus has received attention in the news lately as the most damaging tick-borne disease. While its prevalence is very low, the illness can be fatal or debilitating. The CDC reports that 10% of those who contract Powassan virus do not survive, and 50% experience permanent neurological damage. The illness typically begins with flu-like symptoms but can progress to infection of the central nervous system. Symptoms of nervous system infection include confusion, seizures, and swelling in the brain (encephalitis). There is currently no treatment beyond symptom control.
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.
If you believe you may have contracted any of these illnesses, you should see a doctor for confirmation and treatment. Transmission of most of these illnesses takes at least 24 hours. Madsen recommends that if you are in the Northeast, upper Midwest, or Southwest US 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.
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.
About the author:
Emily Sundquist is an intern at the Office of Public Affairs at University of Utah Health. She is an undergraduate at Williams College studying Biology and Mathematics.