As the weather warms up, people head outdoors and into the woods. Ticks, too, who live in the great outdoors, often lurk surprisingly close to home – in brush, woodpiles and freshly mowed lawn.
Ticks carry myriad diseases, including Lyme, Bartonella and Babesia. Each of these (and others) can cause long-term damage unless they’re caught early, explains Dina Ibrahim, M.D., family medicine physician at Henry Ford Health System. To make matters worse, the poppy-seed sized critters can also be tough to spot. And since they inject numbing venom into the skin during a feed, people often don’t realize they’ve been bit.
But there is some good news: Ticks have to be attached for 36-48 hours to transmit disease. Of course, your best defense is to avoid getting bit. Barring that, removing a tick soon after it attaches can help you sidestep infection. To that end, here’s your go-to-guide to preemptively protecting yourself from ticks – and what to do if you get bit.
Protective measures to take:
- Cover up. Wear long sleeves, long pants and shoes. Tuck your shirt into your pants, your pants into your socks, and your socks into your shoes. Another tip: Opt for light-colored clothing to make it easier to spot a tick.
- Wear repellent. “Choose products with 30 percent DEET whenever possible, and for added protection, wear clothing treated with the tick repellent permethrin,” Dr. Ibrahim says. Unlike spraying permethrin on clothing, which lasts for 6-8 washes, clothing manufactured with permethrin lasts 70 washes or the life of the fabric.
- Do nightly tick checks. Search your body, hair, and even covered areas, including your inner ears, armpits, belly button and groin for the pesky critters. Just keep in mind that ticks vary in size from a poppy seed to a sesame seed. Better yet, take a shower immediately after coming indoors from an outdoor excursion. Go for a hike? Hit the shower. Weed the garden? Rinse off immediately afterwards. If you hose down soon after coming inside, you have a good shot at washing ticks off before they can embed.
If you spot a tick:
- Remove it stat! “If you see a tick, use a pair of tweezers to grasp it gently near the head or the mouth and pull carefully,” Dr. Ibrahim says. “If it doesn’t detach easily, hold a flame near the tick so its muscles relax making it easier to remove.”
- Take yourself – and the tick – to the doctor. Take the tick and yourself to the doctor as soon as possible following a bite. Since Lyme is a reportable illness, the doctor should send the tick to the health department to be tested for Lyme and other pathogens.
- Pay attention to symptoms – even months later. While the telltale sign of Lyme disease is a bull’s-eye rash or swollen red nodule, symptoms of Lyme disease and other tick-borne infections are often vague and easily dismissed. “You may experience flu-like symptoms such as muscle aches, fever and fatigue in the weeks following a bite,” Dr. Ibrahim says. “Months later, those who are carrying tick-borne illness may suffer from headaches, arthritis-like swelling and pain and memory problems.”
“If you think you’ve been bit by a tick, err on the side of caution,” Dr. Ibrahim says. Left untreated, tick-borne disease can progress from mild symptoms to debilitating organ involvement.