Now that it’s tick season, here’s important information to keep you and your family safe. Learn health issues caused by ticks and how you can avoid them.
What Are Ticks and Why Are Ticks Bad?
Ask your friends and neighbors in our region and you’ll discover almost everyone has a story about getting a tick or even contracting Lyme disease after being bitten. Ticks are small parasites that stay alive by latching onto other beings, such as deer, dogs, or humans, and sucking up nourishment. Losing the small amount of blood a tick draws isn’t bad, but ticks often carry harmful bacteria. Their saliva will transfer that disease to the host.
In Northern Virginia, blacklegged ticks that carry Lyme disease are the most concerning. The CDC estimates that 300,000 people in the U.S. develop Lyme disease each year. These ticks live primarily in the northeastern and north central parts of the U.S. and California. Virginia and Maryland have high prevalence of blacklegged ticks.
Lyme disease can be serious, causing fever and short-term discomfort. Untreated Lyme disease can bring on facial paralysis and arthritis. Some people bitten by ticks may develop Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome, with months or even a lifetime of pain, fatigue, or difficulty thinking, even after antibiotic treatment.
A single tiny tick can cause all these issues, so let’s see how to avoid ticks in the first place.
How To Avoid Ticks
While Lyme disease is most often reported in the summer, ticks start becoming active early in the spring. We’ve seen them in early March in Virginia. Deer are among the natural reproductive hosts, but it doesn’t take herds of wild animals to serve this function. Even residential areas without visible deer presence will have ticks, as mice, squirrels and other small rodents can serve as hosts.
People and pets tend to pick up ticks in long grass and shrubs, so avoid these areas when you can. Simply walking at the center of hiking paths so you don’t brush against vegetation can make picking up a tick less likely. From the CDC:
“While ‘questing,’ ticks hold onto leaves and grass by their third and fourth pair of legs. They hold the first pair of legs outstretched, waiting to climb on to the host. When a host brushes the spot where a tick is waiting, it quickly climbs aboard.”
Not pleasant, huh?
Apply insect repellent. Use the EPA guide to select the best choice. Not all insect repellents work on ticks!
When you’re outside in areas of vegetation, wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts and boots, if you can, to minimize exposure of your skin. Once you’re away from tick habitats, remove your clothes, do a tick inspection (human and pets), and shower as soon as possible. Check your clothes and gear for any hitchhiking ticks. Putting your clothes in a hot dryer can kill ticks you miss.
How to Identify Ticks
A tick will appear as a small brown spot when it first attaches to your skin. It might even look like a mole. It can take about 36 hours of attachment to transfer the disease.
PRO TIP: If you see a NEW mole, don’t ignore it. Get your flashlight and do a close tick inspection.
Ticks tend to nestle in nooks and crannies, at the hairline, behind the knees, under the arms, in the groin area, around the ears, BUT they can attach anywhere. After you and your kids have been out in nature, strip and do a close inspection.
Once the tick starts to suck your blood—yes, that is what it’s doing—its body will start to engorge and change color. After a few days it will become a dull gray ball full of blood and will eventually disengage. Most people notice ticks on their bodies before this happens, but thick and matted hair can hide even these larger bodies.
Brush your hair and that of your pets thoroughly on a regular basis, especially after being outside. If the brush snags at the scalp, part the hair at the sticking spot and look for a tick.
How to Identify Tick Bites
If you have had a tick bite, whether the tick remains visible or not, you might develop a rash. About 80% of bitten people get this rash, known as erythema migrans. This appears within 3 to 30 days and often, but not always, has the appearance of a red bull’s-eye. It may get as large as 12 inches across.
You might also have fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle aches, joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes, with or without the rash. If you have any of these symptoms, communicate immediately with your doctor, sharing the information about your tick bite.
What to Do If You Find a Tick
The CDC’s Rule Number One is DON’T PANIC! Then follow these steps:
- Use very fine tweezers to grip the tick as close to the skin as possible.
- Pull the tweezers straight up without twisting.
- Verify that the tick’s mouth was removed with the body. If not, try to remove the remaining parts with the tweezers.
- Clean the area with rubbing alcohol.
- Dispose of the tick in the toilet, drown it in alcohol, or put it in a well-sealed plastic bag in case later testing is desired to confirm Lyme disease.
- Clean your hands with soap and water.
- Keep track of when the bite occurred and where it happened.
- Watch the area around the tick bite for any rash.
- Call a doctor if you have the rash or other Lyme symptoms.
Note that the natural antibodies that resist Lyme disease take several weeks to develop, so a test for Lyme disease is not meaningful until four to six weeks after the bite. If the bite results in the telltale rash or other symptoms, a doctor will prescribe a multi-week antibiotic treatment. It’s important to start the treatment for Lyme disease as soon as possible. You can get Lyme disease more than once, so every tick bite needs attention.
Pro Tip: Even if you can’t find a tick, if you get a bull’s-eye rash, call your doctor.
Prevent Ticks in Your Yard
While you can’t treat the great outdoors for ticks, you can at least make efforts to keep your own yard safe for kids and pets. Mow the lawn regularly, clean up leaf litter, keep deer and rodents out of your yard, and treat the area with a safe and effective insect repellent.
If you live in a wooded area, or have had issues with ticks in the past, you may wish to hire a pest control company to perform regular tick treatments. At Highland, we pair tick control with our Mosquito Defense program.
While many other companies use pyrethroids, which can be dangerous for pollinators, we use a non-toxic spray that is safe for people, pets and bees. Our treatment won’t cause harm to your garden vegetables or important pollinating bees. Your yard is fully safe for kids to play in soon after treatment. We also apply a barrier treatment around your property to deter ticks from moving in.