How to Treat and Prevent Tick Bites

You’re out hiking, camping, or mountain biking, when suddenly, you spot it: a tick. Maybe it’s on your dog, on your kid, or under your waistband. It doesn’t matter where it is, you’re freaking out. For starters, calm down. “The vast majority of tick bites do not result in disease transmission,” says Jonathan Oliver, a tick-borne bacteria specialist and assistant professor in the Division of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Minnesota.

Still, there are plenty of reasons to protect yourself from ticks. Some 300,000 people get diagnosed with Lyme disease every year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), making it the most commonly transmitted disease the little buggers carry. If left untreated, Lyme can cause arthritis and joint swelling, heart palpitations, and nerve pain, among other negative effects. And there are other maladies and multiple harmful tick species in every area of the country. We asked Oliver for suggestions on preventing tick bites in the first place—and what to do if one gets under your skin.

Prevention

Be Aware in Tick Habitat

Deer ticks, also called blacklegged ticks, are the most concerning in terms of Lyme disease transmission. They can be found all over the United States, though typically in humid, forested habitats, Oliver says. “Generally, ticks will be present during cooler or more moist times of year.” Other harmful species include Rocky Mountain wood ticks, western blacklegged ticks, and lone star ticks, which can spread diseases like Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Powassan disease, and Heartland virus. Check your state health department’s website for resources regarding what species your region is known for and what to look out for if you’re headed into their potential habitat.

Know What to Wear and Apply

You can repel ticks much the same way you ward off insects. “Repellents that contain DEET work very well for ticks, just as they do for mosquitoes,” Oliver says. Ben’s Insect Repellent 30 Percent Spray ($ 4) should get the job done. “If you’re regularly outdoors in places where you know there’s an abundance of ticks,” Oliver says, “you can also wear clothes treated with permethrin,” an EPA-approved formula that wards off bugs. Check out ExOfficio’s BugsAway or Toad&Co’s Debug collections. Oliver also advises that wearing long sleeves and pants can keep ticks from reaching your skin, and that the pests will be more visible on light-colored clothing.

Search Them Out

“Ticks thrive off animals and people not noticing them—that’s their entire survival strategy,” Oliver says. “If you notice them, pull them off. A lot of the diseases aren’t transmitted immediately—many take hours.” If you’re hanging out in a known tick area, perform daily (or more frequent) checks of your entire body. Ticks generally seek out-of-the-way spots that are warm and moist, like your scalp, underarms, groin, backs of your knees, or behind your ears. Don’t forget to have a friend check your back.

ticks
(Ben Khoo)

Treatment

Remove a Tick

So, you found a tick on your body? Get rid of it. “If the tick hasn’t bitten you, there’s really nothing to worry about. Just brush it off or pick it up with a tissue and flush it,” Oliver says. “If it has bitten you, then it’ll be attached. It’s best to use tweezers to remove it.” Grip the tick as close to your skin as possible, then pull it straight off. Try to avoid crushing the body, and do your best to remove all of it. Some folk remedies include touching the tick with a lit match or covering it in Vaseline, but Oliver doesn’t recommend either of those. “The best thing you can do is minimize the amount of time the tick is on you,” he says. Don’t carry tweezers in your pack? You should start, but two plastic credit cards will work in a pinch. If you find one tick, do a thorough search of your body to make sure none of its friends also hitched a ride.

Keep an Eye Out for Symptoms

After a tick bite, pay special attention to any sick-like feelings. “If you get bitten by a tick, and in the next few days or even weeks, you start to feel flu-like symptoms or malaise, or if you see a rash near the bite site, get checked by a doctor,” Oliver says. A bull’s-eye rash is a common symptom of Lyme disease, but it doesn’t show up on all patients. Early treatment with antibiotics will often completely get rid of Lyme, according to the CDC.

Ticks on Pets

Take preventative measures to keep ticks off your dog. “Most flea collars also work for ticks and act as an insecticide or repellent,” Oliver says. “There’s also a really effective Lyme disease vaccine for dogs.” If your dog is tromping around in grassy, moist fields, thoroughly check them afterward. You should be able to feel or see a tick, especially if it’s engorged. Remove it the same way you would on yourself: place the tweezers close to the skin, grab the tick, and pull it off.

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