Katie Clubb, M.D.
Family Medicine, Prenatal Care
Warm weather entices you into the great outdoors. But while you're having fun golfing, camping, picnicking and hiking, ticks are looking for a ride — and a meal. Ticks live in woods, fields and grassy areas. All of them survive on blood drawn from people or animals, and they can pass along disease in the process.
What makes ticks tick and people sick
To find the next meal, ticks climb onto objects like blades of grass, leaves or shrubs and stick out their legs. When a host brushes by, they grab on. Some ticks attach quickly, while others wander, looking for places where the skin is thinner, like the ear. That's where they'll grab hold and bite.
While attached, ticks can acquire or pass along disease. After feeding, most drop off. At their next feeding, ticks can transmit an acquired disease to the new host.
Ticks can be found in most regions of the country.
Tick-borne diseases and where in the U.S. they are common include:
- Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, babesiosis and Borrelia miyamotoi disease: Upper Midwest and the Northeast
- Ehrlichiosis: Southeast and South Central
- Rocky Mountain spotted fever: North Carolina, South Central and Southwest
- Relapsing fever: Great Plains, Mountain West and West Coast
- Southern tick-associated rash illness (Lone Star tick disease): East, Southeast and South Central, but spreading north
Tips to avoid tick bites
Not every tick carries disease, but it's still a good idea to avoid being bitten. These tips can help:
- When outdoor activities take you into tick territory, wear shoes (not sandals), long pants tucked into your socks, a long-sleeved shirt, hat and gloves.
- Stick to trails when possible, and avoid walking through low bushes and long grass.
- Keep dogs leashed so they don't venture where ticks may be.
- Use insect repellents with at least 20% DEET. Repellents with up to 30% DEET can be applied to children over two months old. Apply to clothes and exposed skin but not hands.
The concentration of DEET in a repellent determines how long protection lasts. A concentration of 10% provides two hours of protection; 30% gives five hours. Avoid products that combine sunscreen and DEET because sunscreen needs to be applied more frequently than DEET.
Taking off ticks, treating bites
After spending time in a wooded or grassy area, check yourself, as well as your children and pets, for ticks. Deer ticks, which carry Lyme disease, often are no bigger than the head of a pin, so search carefully. Shower as soon as you come indoors. Using a washcloth can dislodge ticks that haven't attached yet.
If a tick has attached, time is key. The longer it hangs on, the greater the risk for getting tick-borne diseases.
To remove a tick:
- Avoid folklore remedies like painting the tick with nail polish or petroleum jelly, or using heat to make it release its hold.
- Use a fine-tipped tweezers to grab the tick firmly near its head or mouth and as close to the skin as possible.
- Pull the tick's body up and away from your skin. Avoid jerking or twisting.
- Take a photo of the tick so your health care professional can identify it. Dispose of the tick by putting it in alcohol or in a sealed bag, wrapping tightly in tape or flushing down the toilet.
- After handling the tick, use soap and water to wash your hands and the area around the tick bite.
A small, red bump often appears at the site of a tick bite or removal and resolves over a few days. This is normal and doesn't indicate that a disease has been transmitted.
Contact your health care provider if:
- You aren't able to completely remove the tick.
The longer the tick remains attached to your skin, the greater your risk of getting the disease from it.
- The rash or bump gets bigger.
If the small red bump develops into a larger rash, perhaps with a bull's-eye pattern, it may indicate Lyme disease.
- You develop flu-like signs and symptoms.
Fever, chills, fatigue, body aches and a headache may accompany the rash. If signs and symptoms disappear, you may still be at risk of disease.
- You think the bite site is infected.
Signs and symptoms include redness or oozing.
If you're a Mayo Clinic Health System patient and are concerned about the tick bite, you can call the Nurse Line within 72 hours of removing a tick for virtual care.
Don't let worry over tick-borne diseases keep you and your family indoors. With a few precautions, and carefully checking for and removing ticks, after spending time in wooded or grassy areas, you can safely enjoy your favorite summer activities.
Katie Clubb, M.D., is a physician in Family Medicine in Owatonna, Minnesota.