Summer’s just heating up, but we’ve already heard a lot of scary health news stories about ticks. From reports about how ticks hunt you (yeah, they’re actually hunting you — how creepy is that?) to stories about tick bites that can trigger a meat allergy (if we’re gonna go veggie, we’d prefer to do it on our own terms, thanks), there’s a lot to be wary of. Slate even declared 2017 the Year of the Tick.
So how can you avoid ticks when it seems like they’re everywhere? We reached out to the experts to get tips and tricks for how to stay safe this summer — and what to do when your health is at risk.
So where do people encounter ticks?
“Ticks are generally found outdoors, but not only in the great outdoors,” explained Rebeccah Shalev, a Naturopathic Doctor with the Holtorf Medical Group in Foster City, California who specializes in treating Lyme disease. “When out hiking, avoid wooded and brushy areas, as well as areas with tall grasses and accumulations of leaves on the ground. Staying to the center of trails can reduce the chance of having a tick jump onto you from the edge of the trail. But all these conditions can also exist at home, right in your backyard.”
Want to keep your backyard tick-free? “Keep your lawn mowed, remove piles of trash or old mattresses where ticks can hide, and consider fencing the perimeter of your yard,” said Dr. Shalev. “This can reduce the chance of deer or stray dogs wandering in and carrying ticks with them. If your yard abuts a wooded or overgrown grassy area, leave a three-food wide buffer strip of wood chips or gravel between your yard and the tick haven next door.”
How can you prevent tick bites?
“Avoiding areas where ticks are found is one strategy,” shared Patricia Salber, an MD and founder of The Doctor Weighs In, “but that would mean missing out spending time in some very beautiful places.”
So instead, make sure you dress to protect yourself. “If you are planning a hike in the woods or a stroll through tick-infested grassy areas… dress in long-sleeved shirts and long pants,” said Dr. Salber. “Tuck your pant legs into your socks so you block the tick’s ability to reach your skin. And, wear a hat.” Dr. Shalev also recommends spraying your clothing with insect repellant to be extra safe.
But it’s not just about keeping your skin hidden away. It’s also about protecting it. Use a tick repellant that contains DEET on all of your exposed skin — you can check out the Center for Disease Control’s recommendations on their website. Not feeling DEET? Dr. Shalev suggests using a repellant with essential oils — though they may be less effective than chemical repellants.
“Plants in the wild have to defend themselves from attacks by insects and microbes that exist in their environment, and they produce essential oils for their own protection. Some essential oils that have been shown to be particularly effective against ticks are lemon, eucalyptus, geranium, and lavender.”
When you’re ready to come inside, throw all your clothing directly into the wash on hot or go straight to the dryer. The high temps will take care of any ticks.
How do you know if you’ve been bit?
The truth is, you might not know — according to Dr. Shalev, ticks “secrete a small amount of anesthetic into their saliva to keep you from feeling the bite.” So when you get home, perform a visual tick check. You can do this with a buddy or by looking in the mirror, but it’s important to be thorough.
“Pay special attention to the scalp, underarms, groin, backs of knees, belly button and inside and behind the ears,” says Dr. Shalev.
It’s also important to check your hair. And don’t forget to check any furry friends you brought outdoors. “If your dog went with you on the hike, he deserves a thorough tick check as well,” says Dr. Salber.
How can you remove a tick?
Dr. Salber has the answer: “There are many ‘old wives’ tales’ about how to remove a tick, but experts recommend only one: grab the base of the tick near the embedded mouth parts, preferably with fine tweezers. Then gently pull it outward from the skin with a slow steady pull so that you don’t break off the mouth parts and leave them in the skin. If the mouth parts do break off, leave them alone. The body will expel them on their own. Do not try to dig them out as you will traumatize the skin and you can cause a skin infection.”
Dr. Shalev also recommends the Tick Twister, which you can buy on Amazon.
Is there anything else you need to do if you’ve been bit?
Clean the bite area and your hands with soap and water. If you have an iodine swab or alcohol, those can be used to clean the bite area as well, says Dr. Shalev. “Applying a topical antibiotic and a bandaid to the bite is also not a bad idea.”
If you’re in an area where Lyme disease or other tick-born diseases are a risk, you’ll want to save the tick for testing. “Wrap the tick in tissue and put it in a container that you can close tightly. Keep it in a cool place,” Dr. Salber instructs. “It is also helpful if you can provide information to your clinician about the size and color of the tick when alive (take pictures with your smartphone) and whether it was actually attached to the skin, if it was engorged (full of blood), and how long it was attached.”
How will you know if you get sick?
If you see signs of infection — Dr. Salber says to watch out for redness, swelling, pain and warm skin — you might have a bacterial skin infection from the bite which can be treated with antibiotics from your doctor.
If you think you might be at risk for a tick-born disease, Dr. Shalev advices that you seek treatment right away. “The safest course of action is to freeze the tick in case you want to test it in the future, but begin prophylactic antibiotic therapy right away, whether you develop a bull’s-eye rash or not.”