With each passing year, ticks seem to pose an even greater threat. What's worse, the nasty buggers tend to hide in the places where we most like to play in summertime.
"Ticks are most prominent from April to September and they like a lot of different habitats," explains Dina Ibrahim, M.D., a family medicine physician at Henry Ford Health. "They tend to hang out in areas where there are tall bushes, trees, shrubs and leaf litter."
If hiking, hunting, camping or enjoying the outdoors are on your summer agenda, it's a good idea to get familiar with standard tick procedure.
What Are Ticks?
Ticks are part of the arachnid family (as are spiders). They have eight legs and range in size from a poppy seed to a number 2 pencil eraser. The blood-sucking vectors have carbon dioxide sensors that allow them to sense and then attach to humans, four-legged pets and wild animals. And as they feast on blood, they grow in size.
Ticks come in different shades, from brown and reddish-brown to the blackest black. Unlike other bugs that bite, including their spider cousins, ticks remain attached after they sink their teeth into your skin. After feeding on a host for days, they become engorged and can take on a greenish-blue hue.
"Ticks creep and crawl to moist areas of the body where they can hide and feed. Then they bite into your skin and get comfortable," Dr. Ibrahim says. "They often go unnoticed because they hide in hair and in skin that's thin enough to puncture easily."
Areas where ticks are most likely to lurk include:
- The scalp
- In and around the ears
- Under the armpits
- Behind the knees
- Inside the belly button
- Around the waist
- In the groin area
What Should You Do If You Spot A Tick?
If you see a tick, use a pair of tweezers to grasp it gently near the head or the mouth and pull it directly out. If it doesn’t detach easily, hold a flame near the tick. The heat will make its muscles relax, making it easier to remove.
"Don't crush the tick or twist and turn it to get it out," Dr. Ibrahim says. "That can cause the body to detach from the fangs and you'll still have a tick head attached to your skin. If that happens, make sure you pull the remaining parts out of your skin and immediately wash the area with soap and water."
After removing the tick, drop it into a tightly sealed bag and take it with you to the doctor as soon as possible. Your doctor can test the tick for bacteria and determine whether treatment is needed.
What Are Some Complications Of Getting Bit By A Tick?
Most tick bites are harmless and don't produce noticeable symptoms, especially right after you’re bitten. You might notice pain, swelling or burning near the bite site, or experience a rash or blisters after being bit. If the tick is disease-free, most symptoms dissipate within a few days.
Unfortunately, a growing number of ticks carry bacteria, including Borrelia burgdorferi (the bacteria that causes Lyme disease), Bartonella and Babesia, that can cause diseases in humans and pets. Tickborne diseases can cause a variety of symptoms that typically develop within several days to a few weeks after a bite. The good news: Ticks have to be attached to the skin for 36-48 hours to transmit disease.
Symptoms of tickborne diseases may include:
- Muscle or joint pain
How Can You Prevent Tick Bites?
Tick bites are preventable. The key, says Dr. Ibrahim, is to be vigilant when you're in their habitat and use the following strategies:
- Stay away from their territory. When you're hiking or forest bathing, stay in the middle of the trail. Avoid traveling deep into the woods where there's a lot of brush and stay out of leaf litter.
- Be particular about your clothing. The jury is out on which color clothing is best. White clothes make it easier for you to spot a tick, but some experts say it also makes it easier for ticks to spot you. Dark clothing has caveats, too. It tends to trap in heat, making humans more likely to emit carbon dioxide the ticks can sense. Your best bet: Wear neutral colors and make sure to cover exposed skin with long sleeves and long pants (preferably treated with the tick repellent, permethrin). Wear a hat, tuck your shirt into your pants, your pants into your socks, and your socks into your shoes.
- Use repellent. In general, the same repellants that work against mosquitoes work for ticks. According to Dr. Ibrahim, the best repellents contain 30% DEET, but less toxic repellents may also be effective, including oils of lemon and eucalyptus, picaridin and IR35-35 formulations.
- Do nightly tick checks. Search your body for ticks every night, paying close attention to the areas where they like to hang out, such as your inner ears, belly button, behind the knees and groin. Even better, take a hot shower after each outdoor adventure. If you hose yourself down soon after you come indoors, you're more likely to wash away ticks before they can attach.
Unfortunately, symptoms of Lyme disease and other tickborne infections are often vague and easily dismissed. "If you develop a fever or rash within two days of spotting a tick on your skin, make sure to visit your doctor within 72 hours," Dr. Ibrahim says. "In areas where ticks are endemic, your doctor may decide to treat with antibiotics even before getting test results from the tick."
Dr. Dina Ibrahim practices family medicine and sees patients of all ages at Henry Ford Medical Center – Royal Oak.