How to protect yourself from ticks and safely remove them, according to experts

Two people wearing shorts hiking in the woods, where ticks can be lurking. Ticks can cause several potential health issues, but a lot depends on the type of tick.
Ticks can cause several potential health issues, but a lot depends on the type of tick. (Getty Images)

Spring is finally here, and with it are plenty of opportunities to be outside in nature. But warmer weather also coincides with a boom in tick populations in many parts of the U.S.

If you live in an area where ticks are common — which includes the eastern half of the country and the West Coast, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — you probably have some awareness that ticks could be lurking in your outdoor space. But knowing details about ticks, including where they're most likely to show up and how to remove one if you're unlucky enough to be bitten, can make a huge difference in your risk of developing a tickborne illness.

Experts break down the most important tick facts to know heading into tick season.

Where are you most likely to encounter ticks?

It depends. Tick populations are spreading across the country. Currently they can be found in a stretch from the East Coast all the way to Texas and other heartland states, along with certain species along the West Coast. But different types of ticks live in different areas.

"Ticks can be found in a wide range of habitats," Ben Hottel, technical services manager at Orkin, tells Yahoo Life. "Some ticks such as the blacklegged tick tend to prefer wooded areas with dense vegetation, while American dog ticks can be found in meadows with tall grass. There is even one tick, the brown dog tick, that can infest inside homes with dogs."

You can even come into contact with ticks in your backyard, Thomas Dobrinska, a board-certified entomologist with Ehrlich Pest Control, tells Yahoo Life. "Your yard can still potentially harbor ticks, if there are plenty of conducive areas to rodents and wildlife, such as leaf litter, tall grasses, food, food refuse and low-lying vegetation," he says.

How do ticks get onto your body?

While people often pick up ticks while hiking through the woods, they don't jump out of trees, Terminix technical manager Timothy Best, a board-certified entomologist, tells Yahoo Life. "Ticks do not jump, they do not fly, and they will not be dropping from trees onto you," he points out.

Instead, he says, ticks tend to do something called questing. "They will climb plants and other vegetation, rest on their third and fourth pair of legs while outstretching their front legs and wait for a host to pass by," Best says.

"Ticks tend to get on you when you brush against midlevel vegetation or leaf litter," Cynthia Lord, an associate professor and entomology researcher at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, tells Yahoo Life. "Most want to crawl up your body."

Are there spots on the body where you're more likely to find ticks?

Ticks will usually crawl up your body until they find a good place to bite and can't go up anymore, Lord says. Typically this will end up being around your waistband or groin, but every species is different. "A couple of species like to bite at the nape of your neck," she points out. Technically, though, ticks "can bite pretty much anywhere," Lord says.

What common health issues can tick bites cause?

There are several potential health issues that tick bites can cause, but a lot depends on the type of tick. "Pathogens are tick-specific," Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life.

Lyme disease is one of the most well-known tickborne illnesses, and it's carried by blacklegged ticks, Russo says. It can lead to symptoms like fever, headache, fatigue and a skin rash called erythema migrans, according to the CDC. "But the same ticks that carry Lyme disease also can cause babesiosis, ehrlichiosis and other diseases," Russo says.

While Lyme disease gets a lot of attention from the general public, Russo says that "the most feared infection from ticks in this country is Rocky Mountain spotted fever." This condition is "potentially lethal," he says, and is considered one of the deadliest tickborne diseases in the Americas. Symptoms of Rocky Mountain spotted fever include fever, headache, rash, stomach pain and muscle pain, and severe forms of the disease can lead to hearing loss, paralysis, mental disability and the need to have limbs amputated, according to the CDC.

Is it true that not all ticks carry Lyme disease bacteria? Does where you live matter?

Not all ticks carry Lyme disease bacteria, but the blacklegged tick, which is one of the most widely found ticks in the U.S., can carry it — and many do. A study published in 2018 that analyzed data from 16,080 ticks found that up to 5% of blacklegged ticks are infected with the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria that causes Lyme in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. However, that number drops to less than 10% in the South and West.

Still, you can pick up Lyme disease practically anywhere. "While the disease and the ticks that carry it are most prevalent in the Northeast, Lyme disease has been found in all 50 states," Best points out.

How can you protect yourself from ticks?

The CDC offers several tips on how to protect yourself against tick bites. Those include:

  • Knowing where ticks can be present and being aware in advance

  • Treating your clothes and gear with products containing 0.5% permethrin before you go into tick-infested areas

  • Using insect repellent registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that contains DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD) or 2-undecanone

  • Avoiding wooded or brushy areas with high grass and leaf litter

  • Checking your clothes for ticks after you go indoors and tumble-dry your clothes at a high heat for 10 minutes

  • Examining your gear and pets after you go inside

  • Showering soon after being indoors

  • Checking your body for ticks after being outdoors

How can you protect your pets from ticks?

Whether you like to hike outside with your pet or live in an area where ticks are common, there are a few things you can do to protect your pets from ticks. "It’s best to check with your veterinarian about treatments offered for tick control," Hottel says. Dogs and cats can be given special treatments that are toxic to ticks to help protect them from bites, Russo says.

"If you do find a tick on your pet, it should be removed off your pet as soon as discovered," Hottel says. "Also, regular pet inspections can reduce the chance of your pet contracting a tickborne disease."

How can you safely remove a tick?

The CDC recommends doing the following if you happen to spot a tick on your body:

  • Use clean, fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible

  • Pull upward with steady, even pressure

  • Clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water

  • Get rid of the tick by putting it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag or container, wrapping it tightly in tape or flushing it down the toilet

When removing a tick, don't twist or jerk as you pull it off, since those can cause parts of the tick to break and remain in your skin, Russo says. "You want to try to get the mouthpieces and the whole tick out," he says.

When should you see a doctor?

If you know you've been bitten by a tick, Russo recommends monitoring yourself for several days afterward to see if you develop symptoms of a tickborne illness, which can include a rash around the bite area. And, if you develop symptoms, see your doctor.

But, Russo points out, people don't always know if they've been bitten by a tick. If you've been in an area where ticks are common and you develop symptoms of a tickborne illness, Russo also recommends consulting your doctor — even if you haven't found a tick. "Sometimes there are the ticks that you don't see," he says. "It's still important to reach out to your doctor."

Overall, Russo encourages people to be aware that tickborne illnesses can and do happen. "Tickborne diseases are increasing in this country," he says. "People need to be aware of the potential health risks and be careful when going in areas where ticks may latch onto you."

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