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Reduce Your Risk of Ticks and Lyme Disease

Steps to help prevent bites and illnesses

spinner image a woman in red capri workout pants spraying tick repellent on her calves and ankles in the woods during summertime
Zbynek Pospisil / Getty Images

Ticks: They’re tiny pests that stop outdoor fun in its tracks. Thousands of people in the U.S. are bitten by them each year, and federal data shows cases of tick-borne diseases — including the most common, Lyme disease — are on the rise.

Fortunately, experts agree that simple strategies can help people of all ages lower their risk of falling victim to ticks. Here’s how:

Know your ticks, know your risk

One major misconception is that all ticks carry Lyme disease, says tick expert Thomas N. Mather, director of the University of Rhode Island’s TickEncounter Resource Center. Instead, different species of ticks carry different disease-causing bacteria, and the life stage of the tick — larva, nymph or adult — also matters.

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Lyme disease, for example, is most commonly spread by black-legged ticks, also called deer ticks, in their poppy seed-size nymph stage. Another thing to keep in mind, Mather says, is that only some ticks will harbor disease-causing bacteria in the first place. Among black-legged ticks in most places in the Northeast, an estimated 20 percent of nymphs and 50 percent of adult females carry the bacteria that cause Lyme disease.

According to a 2021 estimate based on insurance records and reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 476,000 people are diagnosed and treated for Lyme disease each year, with reported cases most common among middle-aged adults and young children. Susan Paskewitz, an entomology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says the prevalence of Lyme cases among middle-aged adults has to do with behavior and activities, like spending more time outdoors, rather than any sort of biological susceptibility.

Tick-borne illnesses can pose serious health risks, especially for older adults, says CDC spokesperson Kate Fowlie. One such disease is babesiosis, also transmitted by black-legged ticks, which causes flu-like symptoms and can be life-threatening for older adults and those with compromised immune systems.

Because different species are found in different parts of the country, the risk of tick-borne illnesses varies by region. Lone star ticks, for example, are commonly found throughout the eastern, southeastern and south-central states and transmit a disease called ehrlichiosis, which, like babesiosis, can also be more severe among older age groups.

The lone star tick is also primarily responsible for triggering a red meat allergy called alpha-gal syndrome in some people who suffer a bite. As many as 450,000 people in the U.S. may have been affected by this allergy since 2010, a new report from the CDC says, prompting researchers to label alpha-gal “an important emerging public health problem.”

The last factor to consider is season, because tick activity peaks at certain times of the year. Black-legged ticks, for example, most commonly bite in the spring, summer and fall, the CDC says, making preventive measures most important during those seasons for people in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic and upper Midwest, where the risk of Lyme disease is highest.


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Preventing tick bites

To reduce your risk of a tick-related illness, experts recommend a two-part strategy. First, minimize your chances of letting a tick reach your skin in the first place. Then, take preventive steps, like examining your body and clothing once you come indoors.

For those in high-risk areas, experts stress the importance of staying vigilant on a daily basis. It doesn’t take an hours-long trek through the woods to be at risk — everyday activities like walking your dog, gardening or mowing the lawn can be the perfect opportunity for ticks to find a human host.

To avoid being bitten:

  • Walk in the center of trails and steer clear of wooded and brushy areas where high grass or leaf litter is present.
  • Use a tick-repellent spray that contains EPA-registered ingredients such as DEET, picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus. (Many of these ingredients can also work double duty to ward off mosquitoes, responsible for a recent rise in illnesses of their own.)
  • Wear long-sleeve shirts and long pants while outdoors, making sure to tuck your pant legs into your socks.
  • For extra protection, look for clothing and gear that has been treated with a chemical called permethrin, which kills ticks on contact. (You can also treat clothing yourself using a permethrin spray.)
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After being outdoors:

  • Those in high-risk areas should make a daily tick check part of their routine. That means looking over all of what Paskewitz calls “your nooks and crannies” — places like the backs of knees, around the ears, even inside your belly button. You can enlist a partner or use a mirror to help.
  • The CDC also recommends showering soon after coming inside — this can be a good opportunity to conduct your tick check — and examining your clothing and gear for any unwanted guests. To kill ticks on clothing, put garments in the dryer for at least 10 minutes on high heat.
  • If you’ve been outside with grandkids, make sure to examine them for ticks, too. Pets should also be checked for ticks after coming indoors and should be treated with a tick-preventing medicine according to your veterinarian’s recommendation.

If you've been bitten

If you discover a tick on your body, remove it promptly by using a fine-tipped tweezers and pulling upward with steady pressure (you don't want to break off any body parts and accidentally leave them behind). Avoid folk remedies like painting over the tick with nail polish or using heat to dislodge it.

Symptoms of Lyme Disease

Discovered a tick? Don’t delay a trip to the doctor if you experience these early signs and symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle and joint aches
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • A “bull’s-eye” rash (occurs in roughly 70 to 80 percent of people)

Source: CDC

The CDC recommends monitoring yourself for symptoms for 30 days following a tick bite. If you experience a rash (it doesn’t have to be bull’s-eye-shaped), fever or flu-like symptoms such as headache and joint pain, contact your health care provider.

Most tick-borne illnesses that are detected early can be treated with a simple course of antibiotics, the CDC says. The agency also notes that a Lyme-carrying tick typically needs to be attached for at least 36 hours before it transmits the disease — making daily tick checks and prompt removal all the more important.

If you’re curious about the type of tick that bit you, consider submitting a photo to the TickEncounter Resource Center’s TickSpotters tool, which provides an expert response about the tick’s species and disease risk within a few days. Your local health department may also offer a tick identification program for those who can mail or bring in specimens in person.

If you’re not interested in identification, disposing of a dislodged tick is easy — a flush down the toilet will do.

Video: Top 5 Tips for Preventing Tick-Borne Disease

Editor’s note: This article, originally published Aug. 29, 2019, has been updated with new information and new statistics.

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