Tick-tock. And no, not the popular social media app.
Ticks are a concern every spring and summer because they can transmit infections that can cause people to become sick. Lyme disease is still the best known and most common disease spread by ticks in Virginia, but there are others such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever and ehrlichiosis.
Factors like weather, habitat and the availability of host animals 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,” says Josh Smith, an environmental health supervisor with the Health Department.
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.
Before You Go Outdoors:
1.) Know where to find ticks. Ticks live in grassy, brushy, or wooded areas, or even on animals. Spending time outside walking your dog, camping, gardening or hunting could bring you in close contact with ticks. Many people get ticks in their own yard or neighborhood.
2.) 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.
3.) Use a repellent. Repellents can be applied to exposed skin and clothing to help repel ticks. Follow the label instructions. Use Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended active ingredients: DEET, picaridin, IR3535, Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE) or para-menthane-diol (PMD).
4.) 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.
After You Come Inside:
5.) Check your clothes for ticks. Ticks may be carried into the house on clothing. Any ticks that are found should be removed. Tumble dry clothes in a dryer on high heat for 10 minutes to kill ticks on dry clothing after you come indoors. If the clothes are damp, additional time may be needed. If the clothes require washing first, hot water is recommended. Cold and medium temperature water will not kill ticks.
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.) Shower soon after being outdoors. 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 may help wash off unattached ticks and it is a good opportunity to do a tick check.
8.) Check your body for ticks after being outdoors. Conduct a full body check upon return from potentially tick-infested areas, including your own backyard. Use a hand-held or full-length mirror to view all parts of your body. Check these parts of your body and your child’s body for ticks:
- Under the arms
- In and around the ears
- Inside belly button
- Back of the knees
- In and around the hair
- Between the legs
- Around the waist
1.) 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.
2.) 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. The most common tick identified is the lone star tick, but deer ticks pop up, too.
It’s important to know the symptoms of tick-borne disease so you can seek early treatment when necessary. Symptoms can 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 are concerned that you may have contracted a tick-borne illness, consult your physician as soon as possible.