With summer approaching, you should be on your guard for a new crop of deer ticks and the diseases they can carry, such as Lyme, which affects about 300,000 people in the U.S. each year and is "increasing significantly," according to tick experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"People are at risk every summer, but the geographic reach of Lyme disease is expanding," says Ben Beard, Ph.D., chief of the CDC's bacterial diseases branch in the Division of Vector-borne Diseases. He says the CDC is most concerned about "leading edge" areas where Lyme disease is new and health care providers may be less familiar with the condition. "If you live in an area where there is Lyme disease, you have to protect yourself," he says.
Take these five steps to protect yourself from ticks and the diseases they can carry.
To avoid a tick bite, use an effective repellent. Consumer Reports recently tested 15 insect sprays and found several to recommend that are safer to use and work for several hours.
Apply to exposed skin—never under clothing. Use just enough to cover since heavy doses don't work better. And don't let young children apply. Instead, put it on your own hands, then rub it on kids, avoiding their hands, eyes, and mouth. Wash off repellents before you go to bed.
When walking through wooded or grassy areas, wear light-colored clothes because that makes it easier to spot ticks. Wear long sleeves if possible and long pants, socks, and boots or closed-toe shoes. Tuck your hair into a hat, your shirt into your pants, and your pants into your socks. For extra protection, toss your clothes into a dryer on high heat to kill ticks that might be attached.
Back inside, shower using a wash cloth as soon as possible (preferably within two hours) to remove any unattached ticks, which often remain on your skin for hours before attaching themselves. Search carefully, since deer ticks are no bigger than the head of a pin.
Check your body, including your armpits and groin, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, behind the knees, between the legs, around the waist, and in your hair. Use tweezers to gently remove any attached ticks. (Remove the whole body, including the head.) Ticks have to be attached for at least 36 hours to transmit Lyme disease.
Ticks like tall grass and lots of shade. So keep your lawn mowed (read our lawn mower buying guide), remove leaves and other debris, and try to let as much sun into your yard as possible. Consider putting up a fence around your property to keep out deer and other large animals that can carry ticks.
Deer ticks that crawl aboard your dog or cat can attach to you after you touch your pet. So inspect pets after they've been outside, and remove any ticks you find with tweezers. "Try not to puncture it, because infected material can come out of the damaged tick," says Lars Eisen, Ph.D., research entomologist for the CDC. "And don't handle the tick with your bare fingers." Dispose of a tick by submersing it in rubbing alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag, wrapping it tightly in tape, or flushing it down the toilet.
The good news is that if you lose a tick while removing it with tweezers, it likely will be too damaged to bite again, Eisen says. Deer ticks feed only once in each life stage (larva, nymph and adult).
Lyme, which can give you flu-like symptoms, is the most common disease associated with deer ticks, but there are others: anaplasmosis, babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, Powassan encephalitis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
See a doctor if you develop signs or symptoms of a tick-borne illness. In addition to the classic bull's-eye rash of Lyme disease, tick-borne illnesses can cause chills, fever, fatigue, headaches, and muscle or joint pain.
Prompt treatment can stop the infection and prevent more serious complications, such as acute arthritis and facial paralysis (with Lyme disease), difficulty breathing or hemorrhage (anaplasmosis), blood clots and bleeding (babesiosis), difficulty breathing or bleeding disorders (ehrlichiosis), neurological problems (Powassan), and widespread heart, joint, or kidney damage (Rocky Mountain spotted fever).