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While tick are commonly thought of as something to be worried about in the warmer months—think: spring and summer—tick season is expanding into the autumn months as well. So, as we continue to ride outside, keep in mind that venturing into woods, parks, and trails means more exposure to ticks in most parts of the country—and ticks can create big health problems for nature lovers. It’s good to know about proper tick removal, but the best way to prevent tick-borne diseases? Keep the bloodsuckers from sinking their insect fangs into your vulnerable flesh in the first place.
Tick-related illnesses, which include Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and Anaplasmosis, can present with symptoms including fever, headache, fatigue, and joint and muscle aches and can be serious, lasting, and even deadly. Researchers in China and the University of Maryland School of Medicine have also identified a relatively new tick-borne disease they’ve named Anaplasma capra or A. capra, which is Latin for goat, the animal most commonly infected in China. When researchers there tested 477 people who’d been bitten by a tick over a four-week period in spring of 2014, 6 percent of them were infected by this newly-discovered bacteria.
Currently, that particular disease appears to only be present across the pond, specifically in Eastern Europe and Asia where the taiga tick—a relative to the deer tick, which is common in the U.S.—is prevalent. But the finding has drawn attention to the fact that we’re still discovering diseases these vectors can transmit, and we should guard ourselves against the growing risks.
“Lyme disease is increasing in numbers and where it’s found geographically because of milder winters in certain locations and an expanding deer population,” says Alan G. Barbour, M.D., a co-discoverer of the cause of Lyme disease and author of Lyme Disease: Why It’s Spreading, How It Makes You Sick, and What To Do About It. We’ve also found some new tick-borne bacterial diseases of our own in recent years, says Barbour, who is also a professor of medicine and microbiology at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine. “Borrelia miyamotoi, which can cause recurring fevers, was only discovered in humans in the U.S. in the past several years.”
Barbour doesn’t see an effective vaccine becoming available anytime soon, but is optimistic about the future of treatment, which he believes is improving as people are identified and treated earlier. “Most people do very well with antibiotic treatment,” he says.
That said, prevention is always the best cure. Here’s how to enjoy your favorite trails or backcountry roads without picking up these unwanted disease carriers—and what to do if one hitches a ride out with you including tick removal.
Tips for Tick Prevention
“Ticks may crawl around [generally up from your lower extremities] for an hour before inserting their barbed mouthpart and secreting the cement that holds them in place as they feed for several hours,” says Lee Townsend, Ph.D., an entomologist with the University of Kentucky Extension. It’s best to find them early, before they create a firm attachment, because they usually transfer their diseases (if they’re infected) near the end of their feeding period. Here’s what you should do.
Covering up with clothing can keep them from contacting your skin. But it’s not realistic to wear leg warmers in the summer. So if you anticipate being deep in tick territory, a bug repellant that is between 20 and 50 percent DEET can help. “3M Ultrathon works fine,” says Barbour. Picaridin, which is found in OFF! Family Care Insect Repellent, is another good option.
“You can also find some good natural alternatives such as oil of lemon eucalyptus,” says Barbour. Try Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellant. You can also find it in a synthetic form called PMD. If you know for sure you’re going deep in tick territory, you can also treat your clothes with permethrin, says Barbour. “This prevents ticks from attaching or crawling around on clothes.”
Steer Clear of Them
Ticks can’t fly, jump, or even run. They hang out on leaves, blades, and branches waiting for something to brush by, so they can cling on and catch a meal. If you ride the center of the trail or road and avoid bushwhacking and brushing up against high grasses or other vegetation, your risk of picking up a parasitic passenger is pretty low. Once you leave the trail for a pit stop, however, the risk raises exponentially. “The danger may be in sitting down on the side of the trail,” says Barbour. “Ticks are carried by deer and deer like to use trails, too. So the highest concentration of ticks may be close to trails.”
Check for Ticks Every Hour
You can wait until you’re done with your activity if you’ll only be out for an hour or so. Any longer—especially if you’re deep in the woods and brushing against vegetation—and you should scan for them every hour or so, says Townsend.
Shed Your Clothes ASAP
When you return home, leave your gear outside awhile, preferably out in the sun, advises Amanda Roome, a tick researcher and doctoral student at Binghamton University.
“Once your gear is off, the thermal and carbon dioxide signature (which tells the tick there’s a mammal that can provide a meal!) is gone, and the tick will leave,” she says.
Then, put your clothing in the dryer on high for at least 30 minutes, she adds: Ticks need moisture to survive, so the dryer will kill them.
“Take a long, hot shower, which will hopefully wash off any ticks that may be crawling around on you,” says Roome. Being in the shower will also give you a better chance of finding any that might still be on your skin.
Double-Check Ticks’ Hangouts
Check yourself very carefully if you’ve been riding through tick territory. “The bacteria move from the tick’s intestine up into its mouth and then into you. That takes a while,” says Barbour. “You have about 24 hours to remove them before your risk for disease transmission goes up.”
Ticks prefer dark, moist areas, so be sure to check their most common attachment sites carefully. That includes all skin folds—underarms, groin area, and behind the knees—as well as where clothing is tight, such as along the waist. Also check in your hair along the nape of your neck and on your scalp.
“Use a mirror after you shower to check your back and areas you can’t see well,” says Roome.
Go Ahead and Pick
Having thick hair can make it hard to check your scalp thoroughly. If you’ve been in an area where tick encounters are likely, enlist a friend to check your scalp or run a fine-toothed comb through your hair, particularly around the nape of your neck and behind your ears.
How to Remove Ticks
If you find one, take these steps to remove the tick safely.
With a pair of tweezers, grasp the tick as close to its head as possible and gently pull it straight out without twisting. Clean the bite site with soap and water and apply rubbing alcohol if available.
Keep an eye on the site. Rashes generally appear within three to seven days, says Barbour. Though remember, not all people who get tick-borne diseases get rashes, so if you feel flu-like symptoms, see your doctor. Also, if you find a deer tick that is embedded and swelling with blood, and Lyme disease is present in the area, you can see your doctor for a short course of antibiotics to prevent infection.
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