Headed outside sometime soon to soak up the sun and enjoy the outdoors? Tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease can occur, particularly during warm weather, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). So it’s a good idea to protect yourself.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
To explain the biggest risk factors in attracting ticks and getting Lyme disease, as well as explain how to best protect yourself, we spoke with infectious disease expert Alan Taege, MD.
Why Are Tick Bites Dangerous?
Ticks are small arachnids (eight legs, like spiders). They can be hard to spot because they’re small and favor making their home in grassy or wooded areas. They’re also known to spread potentially dangerous diseases, like Lyme disease, via their bites.
That they can be so small and so hard to spot is part of the danger. “It takes about 36 hours for a tick to infect a human,” says Dr. Taege. “If a tick falls into your hair or makes its way to a spot that’s hard for you to see even on your own body, like your armpit or groin, they could attach themselves and be there long enough to infect you.”
What diseases can ticks spread?
While there are several diseases that ticks can spread, Dr. Taege outlines these particular tick-borne diseases to be aware of and their symptoms.
- Lyme disease: low-grade fever, achy joints, headache and bullseye rash.
- Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever: fever, headaches and spotty rashes, particularly around your wrist and ankles.
- Anaplasmosis or Ehrlichiosis: fever, chills, headache and nausea.
Steps to take to prevent tick bites and Lyme disease
There are several ways to protect yourself against ticks, tick bites and Lyme disease, according to Dr. Taege, with the biggest advantage being preventing tick bites in the first place.
Sure, wearing long pants and long-sleeve shirts may not feel the most comfortable for a warm-weather hike, but it’s also the best way to keep ticks from getting on you at all. “Try to wear light colors since ticks can be small and are more easily spotted against brighter colors,” Dr. Taege recommends.
He also suggests tucking your pant legs into your socks or shoes. “By tucking in those pants legs, you cut down on the chances of a tick being picked up from grass or lower bushed and crawling up your legs,” he says.
Dr. Taege has two recommendations when it comes to bug sprays to prevent ticks.
The first is permethrin, a spray that should only be applied to clothing and not to your skin. If it comes into contact with skin, permethrin can cause irritation and itching, so be very careful when applying.
The second bug spray to use is the more common, DEET-based repellants you see at pharmacies and are safe to apply to your skin. While it’s most commonly used for mosquitoes, several popular brands also make tick sprays.
“Between the permethrin and DEET sprays and the protective clothing,” Dr. Taege says, “you should have a very low risk of acquiring ticks and tick-borne diseases.”
Carefully remove ticks
As careful as you might be in preventing ticks, sometimes they still sneak through your defenses and attach themselves to your skin. That’s why a full-body search, even with the help of a partner, is so important after outdoor excursions where you’re more at risk for ticks.
“The real key is to catch them early,” Dr. Taege says. If you find a tick attached to you, it’s possible to remove it, you just want to be careful.
First, gently clean the area around the tick with rubbing alcohol on a cotton swab. Then, using fine-nosed tweezers, get as close as possible to the point at which the tick’s head is attached to your skin and gently – but firmly – remove the tick.
Just don’t squeeze the body of the tick, Dr. Taege says. “If you squeeze the body of the tick, that can cause the tick to regurgitate bacteria into your body via the bite.”
As for the old-school approach of trying to burn a tick off with a match or lit cigarette? Dr. Taege says that’s just not a good idea (for what should be obvious reasons).
And, of course, you can always consult your healthcare provider, especially if you’re not sure when you might have picked up the tick. If you’ve caught it within a day, chances are you’re in the clear. But if it’s been longer, your doctor might recommend some antibiotics to prevent infection.
In some circumstances, particularly in parts of the country where Lyme disease is more prevalent, Dr. Taege says some healthcare providers will prescribe antibiotics even if there are no symptoms of Lyme disease.
“If you take an antibiotic within 72 hours of the bite, you can prevent Lyme disease,” Dr. Taege says. “So there is a prophylactic approach in high incident areas.”
What to watch out for
Dr. Taege recommends keeping a few additional points in mind when keeping an eye out for ticks and tick-borne diseases.
While you can pick up Lyme disease from a tick bite anywhere in the country, there are certain places in the United States where it’s more common for ticks to carry particular diseases. “The areas most typically affected by ticks carrying Lyme disease are the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and upper Midwest,” Dr. Taege says.
It doesn’t mean you can’t get Lyme disease from a tick outside those parts of the country, it’s just less common. “If you live in Nebraska, for instance, Lyme disease cases are far less common than in Pennsylvania or Connecticut,” he adds.
Ticks are everywhere
While we think of ticks as an issue that occurs in predominantly wooded areas, where ticks can fall from various leaves or other plants, Dr. Taege points out that regardless of geography or how wooded your location is, it’s always possible to pick up a tick.
“You can pick these up even in your yard,” he says. “You don’t have to go into wooded areas or brushing weeds. They can be anywhere, even in the grass in your yard, so you have to be on guard.”
If you start showing the initial symptoms of Lyme disease, get treated as soon as possible. Left untreated, Lyme disease could result in more serious health issues.
“Left untreated, Lyme disease can cause arthritis, usually in only one or two joints,” Dr. Taege says, noting the knee joint is most common. “It can also cause Bell’s Palsy, nerve inflammation and even meningitis.”
Even if you find a tick and successfully remove it within a day or so, he says it’s not a bad idea to follow up with your healthcare provider, particularly if you live in an area where Lyme disease is more common.