Not all ticks are equal, but they do have one common characteristic—no one wants to find one on themselves.
Ticks are a concern every summer, but this year you may be hearing more about them because of a rise in rare tick-borne diseases like Powassan virus in parts of the country. Lyme disease is still the best known and most common disease spread by ticks in Virginia.
“We are often asked if it’s going to be a bad year for ticks and this year has been no exception,” says Joshua Smith, the environmental health supervisor in the Health Department’s Disease Carrying Insects Program. Factors like weather, host availability, and habitat can affect the tick population from year-to-year and make it hard to predict their numbers. “What we do know is that ticks are found throughout our area, so it’s important to take steps to prevent tick bites when you are working or playing outdoors,” Smith says.
There are three tick species regularly found in Fairfax County that can transmit disease to humans:
- Black-legged or Deer Tick (Ixodes scapularis)
- Lone Star Tick (Amblyomma americanum)
- American Dog Tick (Dermacentor variabilis)
Ticks find their hosts by detecting breath and body odors, or by sensing body heat, moisture and vibrations. Some species can even recognize a shadow.
Ticks pick a place to wait by identifying well-used paths. Then they wait for a host, resting on the tips of grasses and shrubs. Ticks can’t fly or jump, but many tick species wait in a position known as “questing.”
While questing, ticks hold onto leaves and grass by their third and fourth pair of legs. They hold the first pair of legs outstretched, waiting to climb on to the host. When a host brushes the spot where a tick is waiting, it quickly climbs aboard. Some ticks will attach quickly and others will wander, looking for places like the ear, or other areas where the skin is thinner.
John Orr from our Health Department explains more about where you’ll find ticks.
So let’s get down to basics. Here’s what you can do to prevent tick bites and avoid getting sick from the bite of a tick:
1.) Minimize direct contact with ticks. Avoid wooded and bushy areas with high grass and leaf litter and walk in the center of trails.
2.) Use a repellent containing DEET. Repellents with DEET can be applied to exposed skin and clothing to help repel ticks. Follow the label instructions.
3.) Wear long, loose-fitting, light-colored clothing. Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants. Tuck your pants into your socks and your shirt into your pants so ticks don’t have easy access to your skin. It’s easier to see ticks when they are crawling on light-colored clothes.
4.) Use permethrin on clothing. Clothing can be treated with permethrin, an insecticide that repels and kills ticks. It can be purchased from the outdoors section of several retailers. Follow the label instructions.
5.) Do a tick check. While outside, take breaks to check yourself for ticks. Bathe or shower as soon as possible after coming indoors (preferably within two hours) to wash off and more easily find ticks that are crawling on you. Do a thorough check at the end of the day; use a mirror or have someone help you check the hard-to-see places on your body. Ticks can go anywhere, so you need to check everywhere.
6.) Examine gear and pets. Ticks can ride into the home on clothing and pets, then attach to a person later, so carefully examine animals, coats and backpacks.
7.) Practice tick-safe landscaping. Ticks that transmit Lyme disease need higher humidity levels to survive; they die quickly in drier environments. Increasing exposure to sun and air by removing leaf litter, mowing the lawn and clearing tall grass and brush around houses and at the edges of lawns will reduce the numbers of ticks that transmit Lyme disease.
8.) Discourage deer. Ticks often attach themselves to deer. Those deer then wander into your yard and the ticks may end up on your property. Constructing physical barriers and removing food, such as spilled bird seed, from your yard will discourage deer from entering your yard. In addition, removing plants that attract deer and constructing physical barriers may help discourage tick-infested deer from coming near homes.
Daily checks for ticks and promptly removing any attached tick you find will help prevent infection. It usually takes several hours for diseases to be transmitted from a tick to you.
Here are five steps to successfully remove a tick:
- Use fine-tipped tweezers or shield your fingers with a tissue, paper towel, or rubber gloves, when removing the tick; otherwise infectious agents may enter through mucous membranes and breaks in the skin.
- Grasp the tick as close to the skin surface as possible and pull upward with steady, even pressure.
- DO NOT twist or jerk the tick; this may cause the mouthparts to break off and remain in the skin.
- DO NOT squeeze, crush or puncture the body of the tick because its fluids may contain infectious organisms.
- After removing the tick, thoroughly disinfect the bite site and wash your hands with soap and water.
Our Health Department will identify a tick that you find on your body or your child’s body, free of charge. This tick identification service does not test ticks for pathogens (i.e. Lyme disease bacteria) for clinical purpose.
From 2012 to 2016, the program averaged 330 requests for tick IDs per year. “Through May, we’ve already identified 112 ticks,” says Smith. The most common tick identified is the lone star tick, but deer ticks pop up too.
After you remove a tick, place the tick inside a plastic bag (the Health Department does not remove ticks).
- Bring the tick to the Health Department’s administration building, 10777 Main Street (Kelly Square), Fairfax, VA 22030.
- Bring the tick to the permit counter located in Suite 111, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- If a staff member is available when the tick is brought in, the tick can be identified within a few minutes while you wait. Or you will receive a call at a later time.
It’s important to know the symptoms of Lyme disease so you can seek early treatment when necessary. Symptoms include, but are not limited to:
- A bull’s-eye rash (Not every person infected with the Lyme disease bacteria gets this rash.)
- Achy muscles and joints
If you think you have Lyme disease or are concerned that you may have contracted a tick-borne illness, consult your physician as soon as possible.