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Beginner Skills

How to Avoid and Treat Tick Bites

Pulling a tick off of yourself or your hiking partner is one of the worst hiking experiences of the warmer months. Don't let that keep you out of the woods: You can learn how to avoid getting bitten and what to do if one latches on

It starts with a bump that wasn’t there before, a tiny, hard raised dot that you spot or feel with your fingers. When you look closer, you see a small, buried head, a fat thorax, and eight little legs. It’s not a mole or a speck of dirt: It’s a tick.

Ticks are the bane of warm-weather hikers. The tiny bugs are like heat-seeking missiles, latching on to any warm-blooded creature they can reach and sucking up its blood. Besides being gross and inconvenient, they can transmit a variety of diseases like Lyme and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, some of which can have serious, long-term effects.

But you don’t need to go out unprotected against these critters and just hope for the best: From knowledge to long sleeves to heavy-duty bug repellent, you have an arsenal that you can deploy against these parasites. Read on to learn when you should worry about ticks and how to dispatch them with a little help from our experts.

What are ticks?

It sounds like a simple question, but believe it or not, you likely don’t know the answer. For starters: Ticks aren’t insects. They’re actually arachnids, eight-legged critters that are in the same class as spiders. While there are a number of different families of ticks, they can all see body heat as infrared light, allowing them to zero in on potential hosts. Once they’ve latched on, their normally-tiny bodies can expand to several times their initial size as they fill up with blood.

Another thing to know about ticks: they’re very, very hardy. The hard-bodied ticks we’re used to in the U.S. have a tough exoskeleton that renders them resistant to being squished or ripped apart. They can survive for months with no food or water, hiding in humid spots to avoid desiccation. They can even live for a limited period of time in a near-vacuum.

What kind of ticks are there in the United States?

Lone Star tick
Lone star tick Photo: Fritz Flohr Reynolds

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 7 different types of ticks to be concerned about in the United States: American dog ticks, blacklegged ticks (also known as deer ticks), brown dog ticks, Gulf Coast ticks, lone star ticks, Rocky Mountain wood ticks, and western blacklegged ticks. While each species has a different range, in general, the further south and east you go, the more varieties you’ll have to deal with.

What diseases can ticks spread?

Ticks can spread a variety of diseases, ranging from serious and sometimes fatal ones to relatively benign ones. 

The most well-known and common tickborne illness is Lyme disease. Named after one of the towns in Connecticut where researchers first described it, Lyme is caused by tick-spread bacteria, and often begins with a rash followed by a variety of symptoms ranging from joint pain and weakness to memory problems and heart palpitations. Treatment usually involves a few weeks of antibiotics.

A much rarer tick-carried disease is Rocky Mountain spotted fever, caused by a different bacterium, Rickettsia rickettsii, spread by several kinds of ticks. Symptoms include a rash of bleeding spots on the skin, as well as fever, nausea, and vomiting. While most patients make a full recovery after treatment with antibiotics, some rare cases lose digits or parts of their limbs to gangrene; a few die. 

Other diseases spread by ticks in the United States include tularemia, ehrlichiosis, and anaplasmosis.

How can I avoid tick bites?

tick repellent
A quality bug spray is one of your most reliable defenses against ticks. Photo: Tony Webster

No one likes plucking a tick out of their skin, so prevention is the best way to deal with the little jerks. For starters, consider wearing long pants and sleeves whenever you’re traveling through heavily forested areas, tall grass, or brush. A set of lightweight long pants and shirt for hot days is a good investment. Treating your clothing with permethrin, or buying clothes already pretreated with it, will stop any ticks from hitching a ride and biting you later: Permethrin kills ticks on contact. 

Second, use bug spray on yourself. Go for a formulation using DEET or picaridin, both of which have been extensively tested and shown to be safe and effective. (Avoid plant-based or “natural” repellents; at best, they fend off some ticks, but aren’t nearly as effective of a force field as the two we mention above.) Pay special attention to your ankles and calves: Ticks hiding in the grass often latch on low.

When you get home, don’t just throw your clothes on the floor: On the off-chance a tick found a safe spot to hide in your treated clothes, it could emerge and bite you later. Instead, toss them right in the wash. Do a thorough tick check after you strip. (Enlist a friend to check your back, or use a mirror.)

What’s the best way to remove ticks?

At some point, you likely learned to remove ticks by holding a flame to their backside. The thinking goes that it’s safer to make them burrow out on their own instead of pulling them out, because you risk yanking off their head. But according to researchers, that actually increases your risk of infection as it encourages the tick to regurgitate saliva back into you. A study conducted in Spain in 1996 found that people who crushed or burned a tick embedded in them were more likely to suffer Lyme disease than those who just pulled it out. Here’s the proper method:

  1. Using a pair of fine tweezers, grasp the tick as close to your skin as possible.
  2. Pull the tick straight out, without twisting or jerking it. It should come out whole; if any parts remain in your skin, pull them out with the tweezers if possible. Clean the area with a disinfectant.
  3. Destroy the tick by tossing it in your campfire, cutting it in half with a pocket knife, or, if at home, flushing it down your toilet.

After you’ve discovered a tick, remove it right away: The longer you leave it attached to you, the greater your risk of catching a tickborne illness. Leaving a tick on you for more than 24 hours results in a higher risk of contracting Lyme disease.

What do dog owners need to know about ticks?

Since dogs don’t know how to do a tick check and don’t have the opposable thumbs to pull them out, your pooch is a veritable buffet for ticks. That goes double if you walk your dog off-leash, where they can crash through the brush. 

If you take your dog hiking, make sure they’re treated with flea-and-tick medication, and that you don’t miss their scheduled doses. Check them after each hike, paying special attention to the insides of their ears, under their collars, and the skin folds between their legs, which are all prime places for ticks to hide.