For many of us in North America, outdoor activities like birding or hiking attract a little arachnid that can be more than an inconvenience: the tick. These pests survive by sucking the blood of deer and other mammals, including humans when they have the opportunity.
If you’re afraid of ticks, we have some bad news for you: This year, scientists forecast a high number of Lyme disease cases, an illness spread by deer tick (a.k.a. blacklegged tick) saliva. You can blame the coming Lyme plague on growing populations of white-footed mice, a common host for young deer ticks. These mice often carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, and then pass it onto deer ticks, which then go on to infect humans. Because of favorable conditions, including a bumper crop of acorns and warmer-than-usual winter, mice are plentiful this year—and as a result, it’s likely Lyme disease will be, too.
But don’t let that threat stop you from exploring the forested areas and bordering fields where ticks roam. There are birds to see and trails to hike, after all. Instead, take care and prepare yourself for encounters of the tick-kind by following these guidelines.
Before Leaving the House
Cover up: Ticks want to latch onto your skin, so the best defense is an armor of clothing. Wear long sleeves and pants, even if it’s hot out; better, wear light-colored clothing on which it’s easier to spot dark-colored ticks. And don’t wear clothes with holes or mesh; young ticks (known as nymphs) are around the size of a poppy seed and can easily squeeze through.
Seal your seams: Ticks are sneaky little bugs, and if there is a way for them to crawl under your clothes, they’ll find it. Seal any openings in your armor, especially where your body will brush against grass or shrubs, like your lower legs. A tried-and-true trick is to tuck your pants into your socks, but be careful: stretching your socks can create tick-sized gaps in the weave.
Apply bug spray: If you choose to use insect repellant, there are many options available to you—from lightweight botanicals like citronella, which mask your scent, to heavy-duty insecticides that kill ticks and other insects on contact. Many available for use like IR3535 and DEET can be used on the skin, while others like pyrethrin can only be sprayed on clothing and gear.
Not all repellants are created equal. Some kill all bugs—including insects that are food for birds. Because of this, it’s important to wear insecticide repellants only when you need them. And when using any product, it’s important to follow the directions. Even those advertised as “natural” can have negative effects if used incorrectly.
When Out in the Field
Stay informed: Ticks are small; many look similar, and each species of tick carries different diseases. A tick reference guide will make it easier to know what you’ve encountered and what symptoms to look out for (if you’ve been bitten). There are many websites that feature images of the various tick species and their nymphs, which you can print out and carry with you; Tick Encounter from the University of Rhode Island is one example. There are also apps for iOS and Android, and most are free of charge.
Stick to the trail: Ticks prefer grass at roughly knee height, 12 to 18 inches tall. They don't hang from branches or jump; rather, they “quest” by extending their legs and waiting for a potential host to pass by. Sticking to the middle of the trail away from grass should lower your chances of contact.
Immediately Following Your Foray
Disinfect your clothes: Remove your shoes and socks as soon as possible. Before getting in the house or car, put them in a plastic bag to keep ticks from spreading. Put your clothes in the dryer prior to putting them in the wash; a 15-minute heat cycle should kill any ticks lingering on your clothes.
Do a tick check: Examine your skin over your entire body, feeling for unexpected bumps. Be sure to check tick hotspots like your armpits, your groin, and behind your ears. You can enlist a handheld mirror or even a friend to inspect spots you can’t see. If you live in a tick-infested area, check for ticks frequently; the more familiar you are with checking, the more likely you’ll know what’s a freckle, what’s a mole, and what’s not supposed to be there.
If You Find a Tick
If it’s crawling on your skin: Take a deep breath and catch that little guy. Tape can be really handy: stick the tape on the tick, fold it around so it’s trapped, and throw it out. That way it won’t hang out in your home.
If it’s bitten your skin and is lodged: Don’t panic. Ignore the folklore remedies that claim the final word on removing lodged ticks. Don’t burn it with a match or lighter, and don’t apply petroleum jelly or nail polish to its head to suffocate it; these methods increase the chances of infection. Remove it quickly—without a fuss—to reduce the chances of infection. Use a good, clean pair of tweezers, grasp the tick by its tiny head, and yank it out. Focusing on the head will help you remove the whole tick and not leave its head lodged inside. Any remaining bit could cause future irritation and infection. Then swipe on some disinfectant, apply a Band-aid, and you’re good to go. If you catch it quickly, you’re unlikely to be infected—but keep watch for common symptoms just in case.