En español | Ticks: They're the tiny pests that stop outdoor fun in its tracks — and experts say they stay active well into fall, making prevention important even after summer hikes and picnics come to an end.
Adding to the hazard is an uptick in cases of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses, plus the spread of certain tick species into new parts of the country, according to the latest findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which noted a 22 percent increase in the number of tick-related illness cases reported between 2016 and 2017.
Fortunately, experts agree that simple strategies can help people of all ages lower their risk. 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.
Lyme disease, for example, is most commonly spread by blacklegged 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 blacklegged 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.
The CDC estimates that more than 300,000 people are infected with 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 blacklegged 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 in the southern U.S. and transmit a disease called ehrlichiosis, which can also be more severe among older age groups, and have recently been linked to a rare red meat allergy called alpha-gal syndrome.
The last factor to consider is season, because tick activity peaks at certain times of the year. Blacklegged ticks, for example, most commonly bite in the spring, summer and fall — 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 being bitten 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-repellant 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.)
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.
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.