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Ticks are small spider-like arachnids that feed on the blood of animals and humans. They can carry the bacteria that cause Lyme disease. The bacteria can pass to a person from a tick bite. (It is not passed from person to person.) Lyme disease can lead to serious health problems if it is not treated with antibiotics. The best way to prevent Lyme disease is to avoid being bitten by a tick.
The disease is carried by the blacklegged tick, also called a “deer tick.” Young ticks called nymphs are the most likely to carry the bacteria. They are very small—about the size of a poppy seed. They can be found on deer, rodents, and birds. They live in bushes, grasses, and dead leaves. The most active time of year for infected ticks varies by region of the country. In the East and Midwest, they are more active from April to September. In the West, they may be more active from December to February. But you can still be bitten at other times of the year. Below are tips for protecting yourself from tick bites.
Wear clothes that protect you. Clothing can help protect you from tick bites. Wear long pants and long sleeves in outdoor areas where ticks may live. Tuck your shirt into your pants. Tuck pant legs into your socks. And wear light colors so you can more easily see ticks on your clothes.
Use insect repellent or pesticide. Spray insect repellent containing at least 20 percent DEET on your exposed skin. You can also use it on clothing, shoes, and camping gear. Avoid getting DEET on children’s hands, mouth, or eyes. You can use products with permethrin on clothing, shoes, and camping gear. But do not spray permethrin on skin. It will cause a rash. Follow the directions on the package of the spray you use. For more information on bug sprays, visit the National Pesticide Information Center at http://npic.orst.edu.
Avoid tick-infested areas. Avoid brushing against grasses, bushes, and other plants. Avoid walking through dead leaves and other ground vegetation. Do not sit on fallen logs. And avoid areas with large numbers of deer and rodents.
Check yourself for ticks. After being outdoors, check your clothes and skin for ticks. Keep in mind that the ticks are about the size of a poppy seed. Use both a hand-held and a full-length mirror to view all of your skin. Pay special attention to areas with hair. Make sure to thoroughly check these areas:
Behind the ears
Backs of the knees
Use the clothes dryer. Putting clothing or bedding into a clothes dryer for 1 hour at high heat has been shown to kill ticks.
Create tick-free safety zones. Ticks that transmit Lyme disease live in ground vegetation. Ticks crawl onto people from shrubs and grasses in and around wooded areas. Cut bushes and other plants away from the deck or patio and any child play areas. Keep all grasses cut short. Remove dead leaves and other dead vegetation. Do not put children’s play equipment near wooded areas. Put wood chips or gravel on the ground between lawns and wooded areas.
Use pesticides. You can apply them yourself or hire a pest control expert. States have different regulations about pesticides. Ask your local health department for information.
Keep deer away. Deer often carry the ticks that can infect you with Lyme disease. Do not attempt to pet or feed deer. Ask your local garden center about deer-resistant plants. Ask your local health department about deer control in your area.
Prevent ticks on pets. Pets can bring ticks into your home. Use tick control medication as advised by your veterinarian. Check your pet for ticks after it comes indoors. Pay special attention to the ears.
Ask about local tick-control methods. Some states have tick-control programs. Local health departments may be using methods that can help you control ticks at home.
If you find a tick on your skin, do not panic. Not all ticks carry Lyme disease. And the tick must be attached for 36-48 hours before it might infect you. If you find a tick on you, here’s what to do:
If the tick is not yet attached to your skin, remove the tick with tweezers or a tissue. Flush it down the toilet. If you see a tick on your clothes, use a piece of tape to lift it off. Do not touch it with your bare hands.
If the tick is attached to your skin:
Carefully remove the tick with tweezers. If you don’t have tweezers, use your fingers protected by a paper towel or a thin cloth. Grasp the tick as close to your skin as possible. Pull slowly and gently to remove the tick. The tick may not let go right away. Do not pull harder. Be patient and keep trying gently. Do not twist the head or body as you pull. Do not crush or squeeze the body. This can release the bacteria into your body. Never use a hot match, petroleum jelly, or other products to remove a tick. (If you can’t remove the tick or if part of the tick remains in the skin, call your health care provider right away.)
Wash your skin with soap and water after you remove the tick. This will help ensure you remove any bacteria.
If you can, save the tick in a tightly sealed glass or plastic container. Take it to your health care provider. He or she may be able to have someone identify if it is the type of tick that transmits Lyme.
Call your health care provider and describe the bite and the tick. You may be asked to come in for an exam. You may be tested for Lyme. You may also be prescribed antibiotics to help prevent infection.
Over the next month, watch for the symptoms below, especially a rash at the site of the bite.
Call your doctor if you develop any symptoms of Lyme disease, even if you don’t remember being bitten. These include:
A round, red rash (called a bull’s-eye rash)
Fever and chills
Tiredness or body aches
Headache or a stiff neck
Joint pain and swelling (arthritis), especially in large joints such as the knees
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: www.cdc.gov/lyme
American Lyme Disease Foundation: www.aldf.com