When Does Tick Season Start?

In many areas of the U.S., the answer is right now

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Spring is here, and in many areas the snow has already melted and the weather is warming up. After a long pandemic winter, you might be itching to get back outside for a hike or simply to start readying your yard and garden for the growing season. But this early in the spring, do you need to worry about protecting yourself from ticks and the diseases they carry, such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever?

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The short answer: Yes, says Bruce Noden, PhD, a medical and veterinary entomologist and an assistant professor in the department of entomology and plant pathology at Oklahoma State University.

March and April are when people in most areas need to start worrying about ticks, Noden says. And according to the tick activity tracker run by the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Vector-Borne Disease, your chances of coming into contact with ticks are high in a number of areas in the U.S., including most of the Eastern half of the country and the West Coast.

Here, what you need to know about your risk of encountering a tick right now.

What Happens to Ticks in Winter and Spring?

Tick activity differs depending on location and the species of ticks that live there. Your local health department can be a good source of information.

In some areas with warmer winters, the tick behavior doesn't vary much during the year. For instance, Pacific Coast ticks (found mainly in California and northern Mexico) are active throughout the winter. Gulf Coast ticks, which can be found along the Gulf and southern Atlantic coastlines and in Oklahoma and Arkansas, can become active as early as February.

Even in places that get big temperature dips in winter, cold weather doesn't kill off ticks en masse. Deer ticks (or black-legged ticks)—which transmit Lyme disease, Powassan virus, and several other infections—can emerge and resume hunting for a blood meal whenever the temperature is above freezing and the ground isn’t covered in snow. And while other species, such as American dog ticks (which transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever and tularemia) and Lone Star ticks (which transmit ehrlichiosis and other infections and can trigger a red-meat allergy in humans), do enter a period of dormancy during the winter, longer periods of daylight in the spring signal adult ticks to start feeding again.

In May, tick nymphs emerge, joining the adults to make it the tickiest month of the year, says Thomas Mather, PhD, who directs the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Vector-Borne Disease. May through August is generally peak season for catching Lyme disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Then there's the fact that humans also increase their activity starting in the spring, making it more likely that they’ll put themselves in the path of a tick, says Justin Talley, PhD, a professor and an extension livestock entomologist in the department of entomology and plant pathology at Oklahoma State University. You may have kept to the indoors during winter, but once you head out to run, hike, hunt, garden, and more, he says, “when your activity patterns pick up, be aware that you could find a tick on you,” and take steps to protect yourself.

How to Protect Yourself Against Ticks

Keep in mind that the numbers of tick-borne diseases in the U.S. have been on the rise in recent years. According to a CDC study published in February, an estimated 476,000 people came down with Lyme disease every year from 2010 to 2018.

That’s one reason it’s critical to use some form of protection against ticks whenever you’re out in a wooded or grassy area where ticks could lurk. Adopt these key strategies.

Dress right. It’s best to wear long pants and long sleeves when you go into an area that’s likely to be a tick habitat. You should also tuck your pants into your socks to keep ticks from getting under your clothing. Wearing light colors can also help you spot any ticks that may have hitched a ride.

Use an effective insect repellent. CR currently tests insect repellents against mosquitoes, but our experts say that data have shown that a repellent that works well against mosquitoes is also likely to work well against ticks. Our tests show that repellents with 15 to 30 percent deet, 30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus, or 20 percent picaridin tend to be most effective. Check the label of a repellent before you buy, though, because not all mosquito repellents are also labeled for protection against ticks. You can apply insect repellent to any exposed skin, as well as to the outside of your clothing.

Consider repellent-treated clothing. Permethrin-treated clothing is safe and can kill or disable ticks that come in contact with it. You can purchase pretreated clothing or you can buy permethrin spray and apply it to your clothes. You can even use it to spray your shoes and socks. Spray your clothing and let it dry completely before you wear it because permethrin spray should not be applied directly to your skin. And you'll still need to use insect repellent on any skin not covered by the clothing.

Protect pets, too. Use an EPA-registered or FDA-approved anti-tick product on your pets, if they need them. Talk with your vet about which products are effective and safe.

Check for ticks regularly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends taking a shower and checking your body for ticks within a couple of hours of being in a tick-heavy area. Showering can wash away any ticks that may be on your skin but not yet attached, and it’s an opportunity to check your skin for any bites. Remember that nymphal black-legged ticks are tiny—no bigger than a poppy seed, Mather says. So you need to keep a sharp eye out for these little bugs.

Handle a Tick Bite Right

If despite these preventive measures you are bitten by a tick, the best way to remove it is with a pair of tweezers. And don’t panic, because getting bitten by a tick doesn't guarantee you’ll contract an infection. The risk is actually low, even if the tick is carrying something potentially harmful.

If you find a tick—attached or not—and are curious about what kind it is, several free services can help you identify the species from a photograph. Mather at the University of Rhode Island runs one of these services, called TickSpotters. The University of Wisconsin at Madison also runs the photograph-based Tick Identification Service for residents of Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

Check out two of our top-rated insect repellents, which are also labeled for protection against ticks:

How to Keep Ticks out of Your Yard

Ticks love tall grass and cool, damp areas. On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports expert Catherine Roberts explains how to make your yard less inviting to these pests.

Catherine Roberts

As a science journalist, my goal is to empower consumers to make informed decisions about health products, practices, and treatments. I aim to investigate what works, what doesn't, and what may be causing actual harm when it comes to people's health. As a civilian, my passions include science fiction, running, Queens, and my cat. Follow me on Twitter: @catharob