Each year, an estimated 300,000 Americans contract Lyme disease, the most common tick-borne illness. Though it’s easy to treat, Lyme disease can cause a range of awful symptoms. These range from flu-like symptoms to confusion and heart inflammation.
In short, you want to avoid it.
The good news is it’s simple to stop ticks from infecting you with Lyme in the first place. And by taking precautions, you’ll not only prevent Lyme disease, but other tickborne illnesses, like Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Babesia.
Ticks are commonly found in forested, brushy, leafy, and grassy areas. In some cases, you can avoid tick hide-outs, by staying in the center of a hiking trail, for example. Since this isn’t always possible, make sure you’re protected before you go hiking, camping, or gardening in an overgrown area.
Wear Protective Clothing
Ticks can’t fly, they crawl, so you want to focus on your feet and legs especially. Make sure you’re wearing long pants, socks, and closed-toe shoes.
It’s a good idea to tuck your pant leg into your socks and your shirt into your pants. As unfashionable as this sounds, you want to stop a tick from crawling into these openings.
Ticks like to crawl around on your body until they find a suitable place to bite. This is often a more concealed spot, such as your hair-covered head. That’s why it’s a good idea to tie your hair back and wear a tight-fitting hat, which will make it more difficult for ticks to get to your scalp.
You should also wear light-colored clothing. That way you’ll be able to spot a crawling tick.
“Especially in the summer, people like to wear shorts and half-sleeved shirts,” says Rutul Dalal, MD, Infectious Diseases specialist, UPMC in North Central Pa. “I think especially if you are venturing into heavily forested areas, you should wear long sleeves, long trousers, especially lighter-colored ones so that you can spot the tick if it’s on you very easily.”
To prevent ticks that crawl onto your clothing from ultimately biting — and infecting — you, you can treat your clothing with 0.5% permethrin. This will kill the ticks before they can bite you. Since home-treating clothing is extra work and only lasts for a few washings, consider buying clothing that’s been professionally pretreated with permethrin.
Alternatively, you can have your own clothing professionally treated by mailing it to Insect Shield. Whether you buy pretreated clothing or have your own clothing treated, a professional tick-repellant treatment will last up to 70 washes.
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Use Insect Repellent
Besides wearing repellent-treated clothing (or spraying DEET directly onto your clothes), you should apply an insect repellant to your skin. This will protect you if the ticks crawl under your clothing or onto an exposed part of your body. Be sure to cover your feet, arms, legs, torso, armpits, neck, and hairline.
“You should use insect repellants that are at least 20% DEET on your skin so that these ticks cannot really attach to you,” Dr. Dalal says.
The CDC recommends using Environmental Protection Agency-recommended insect repellents to repel ticks. These include products containing DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, para-menthane-diol, or 2-undecanone.
Picaridin is an excellent — and potentially safer — alternative to DEET. While picaridin is as effective as DEET, it has minimal smell and is unlikely to cause skin irritation. And it’s protection can last up to 14 hours.
Shower and Check Yourself for Ticks After Potential Exposure
If you’ve been in a forested or overgrown area where ticks live, it’s a good idea to shower and wash your hair when you come indoors. For Lyme disease, a tick has to typically attach for at least 24 hours before it spreads infection. Scrubbing with soap and water can cause the tick to fall off before this happens.
After you shower, you should check your body for ticks, using a mirror to examine your back. Parents should also examine their kids. Ticks can bite anywhere, but they prefer to latch on in warm and moist or hair-covered areas of the body.
So, check under the arms, around and in the ears, inside the belly button, in the groin area, and behind the knees. Feel around your scalp or better yet, have someone examine your scalp. As ticks crawl in at openings to your clothing, pay particular attention areas like your waistline.
“If you are out, get someone from the family to do a tick check on you,” Dr. Dalal says. “And if you’re not sure, always take a shower. Take as many showers as possible, especially after you have an outdoor visit. Put your clothes into the washer, and then put it on high heat for the drying process to also kill the tick that harbors the bacteria.”
Remove Ticks Immediately
If you do find a tick, don’t panic. Most ticks don’t carry disease.
If the tick is carrying disease, removing a tick on the day of the bite will prevent Lyme disease and many other tickborne infections. However, ticks can transmit some of the more rare tickborne infections within minutes. So it’s important to remove any tick right away with tweezers. Do not use your bare hands to remove a tick.
Read more about the proper way to remove and dispose of a tick here.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 800 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. We are dedicated to providing Life Changing Medicine to our communities.