Experts say ticks are out earlier this year and sticking around longer than usual thanks to warming temperatures — making it more important than ever to be aware of how to avoid their potentially disease-carrying bites.
In Connecticut, for example, ticks are already showing up in greater numbers this year, Goudarz Molaei, a tick expert for the state, told The Associated Press. Since Jan. 1, more than 1,000 ticks have been sent in for the state’s testing program, the second-highest number in recent years.
“It’s going to be an above-average year for tick activity and abundance,” Molaei warned.
To help you prepare, here’s what you should know about protecting yourself:
Which ticks carry Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is caused by borrelia bacteria, which humans usually contract from the bite of a tick carrying the bacteria.
Ticks that can carry borrelia bacteria live throughout most of the United States, though Lyme disease is most common in the upper Midwest and the northeastern and mid-Atlantic states.
An estimated 476,000 Americans are diagnosed with Lyme disease each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Different types of infected ticks can spread other bacteria, viruses and parasites that make people sick. For example, black-legged ticks, also called deer ticks, can carry more than Lyme-causing bacteria. They can also spread babesiosis, anaplasmosis and Powassan virus disease.
What do tick bites look like?
A tick bite may look like a “tiny, itchy bump on your skin” similar to a mosquito bite, according to the Mayo Clinic. But some people may not even notice they’ve had a tick bite.
Being bitten doesn’t necessarily mean you have a tick-borne disease. However, if the tick was carrying the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, early symptoms usually happen within 3 to 30 days after a bite, the Mayo Clinic explains.
A bull’s-eye-shaped rash is a common sign, Bryon Backenson, an assistant professor at the University of Albany School of Public Health, recently told CBS News.
“It’s a rash that doesn’t always look just like a bull’s-eye, but it’s a red patch. It’s relatively large, usually at least 2 inches or so across,” he explains. “Oftentimes it doesn’t hurt or itch, it’s just there.”
What are the symptoms of Lyme disease? Is there a treatment?
Early symptoms of a Lyme disease infection may include:
- muscle aches
- joint aches or stiffness
- swollen lymph nodes
“Early diagnosis and proper antibiotic treatment of Lyme disease is important,” the CDC advises. “Patients treated with antibiotics in the early stages of the infection usually recover rapidly and completely.” However, the health agency notes some people may experience lingering symptoms, and that more research is needed on the disease.
Without treatment, the Mayo Clinic warns the illness can get worse, with more severe symptoms developing over a period of several weeks or months.
There is no Lyme vaccine on the market for people in the U.S., but one is being tested.
Does bug spray work on ticks?
There are several methods to protect yourself from ticks, both before you go outside and once you return indoors. Here are some expert tips:
Know where to expect ticks: “Ticks live in grassy, brushy or wooded areas, or on animals. Spending time outside walking your dog, camping, gardening or hunting could bring you in close contact with ticks,” the CDC says, adding many people get ticks from their own yard or neighborhood.
Wear long-sleeved clothing: “It’s easier said than done, of course, when it’s really warm out,” Backenson admits. He says lighter-colored clothing can also help you more easily spot the small parasites. Also consider wearing long pants tucked into your socks in tick-infested areas.
Prep yourself and your clothing: Consider insect repellant if you’re going to be outdoors for an extended period. The CDC advises using an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellent containing DEET or other insect-repelling ingredients listed on the organization’s website.
You can also pre-treat your clothing. For example, Backenson suggests treating things like your gardening shoes and hiking gear. The CDC recommends using products containing 0.5% permethrin, which can remain protective through several washings.
Once home, take a shower: The CDC says showering within two hours of coming indoors has been shown to “reduce your risk of getting Lyme disease and may be effective in reducing the risk of other tickborne diseases.” Showering can also help wash off unattached ticks.
Do a tick check: “If you check yourself every 24 hours when you’re getting into the shower… you can really find these ticks and pull them off,” Backenson says.
During tick checks, the CDC advises looking in spots that ticks can hide, including:
- under the arms
- in and around the ears
- inside the belly button
- behind the knees
- between the legs
- on the hairline and scalp
Having someone help check your back and scalp, where you might have trouble seeing yourself, is also a good idea.
What are the best ways to kill ticks?
Worried you’re bringing ticks inside via your clothes?
Putting your outdoor clothes in a hot dryer for about 10 minutes is “enough to kill a tick,” Backenson says.
If you find a tick on you, you’ll want to remove it quickly and correctly.
“Don’t wait to have it removed,” Backenson says. “With a fine-point pair of tweezers, get as close to the skin as you possibly can and gently and firmly pull straight up and that tick will pop right out.”
After removing the tick, the CDC suggests cleaning the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.
You should also never crush a tick with your fingers. Instead, the CDC says to dispose of a live tick by putting it in alcohol,
putting it in a sealed bag, wrapping it tightly in tape or flushing it down the toilet.
Lastly, keep an eye on the area. If symptoms occur, see a doctor.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.