Staying safe outdoors during tick season

There are so many possibilities for us to be bitten by ticks this summer, learn how to prevent and protect yourself from them.

An image of the United States, affected by Lyme disease
Center for Disease Control and Prevention graphic

With the mild weather of spring upon us, many people are venturing into the outdoors after enduring a long, cold Michigan winter.  While there are few better experiences for the soul than a walk in the woods, there are some precautions one should take to minimize the risk posed by ticks.

Although most bug bites are harmless, some people are prone to sensitivity from the biting insect’s saliva, which is recognized by the body as a foreign substance, prompting an immune response.  The more you scratch it, the more it will itch as irritation and inflammation increases.  Many over-the-counter products, or plain old rubbing alcohol, can reduce this itching and inflammation.

However, when it comes to ticks, there are some potentially dangerous ailments that can be transmitted through bites.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ticks can be infected with a variety of bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can be passed on to humans through a bite.  The most common of these is Lyme disease, first diagnosed in Lyme, Connecticut in 1975.

Lyme disease has been notoriously hard to diagnose, although the increased incidence of the disease has resulted in more awareness for both the patient and medical practitioner.  Typical symptoms of possible Lyme infection include initial swelling and/or itching at the site of the bite, which many times progresses into an expanding rash (possibly forming a bulls-eye appearance).  As the infection progresses, flu-like symptoms can present themselves, including headache, chills, fatigue, fever, and nausea.  If left untreated, Lyme's disease can cause permanent, debilitating neurological and joint problems.

The best defense against tick-borne illnesses is prevention.  First, be aware of tick habitat and their methods for finding a host.  Contrary to popular belief, ticks do not drop or jump on people (or animals)—they hang onto vegetation, waiting for something to brush against them, then latch on.  Brushy woods and tall grassy areas provide the best opportunities for ticks to accomplish this, so be especially vigilant when exploring these areas.

It is recommended to wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and socks to provide fewer areas of exposed skin for ticks to latch onto.  Additionally, since ticks usually crawl upwards, tucking pant legs into socks will increase the likelihood of seeing ticks on your pants rather than on your skin.

The CDC recommends treating clothing, boots, and outdoor gear with products containing permethrin.  Insect repellents containing DEET or other Environmental Protection Agency approved ingredients can be quite effective at repelling ticks.

Finally, don’t forget about pets.  After venturing outdoors, be sure to thoroughly check your pet’s coat for any ticks.  And, talk to your veterinarian about the best way to protect your pet from ticks.

Any ticks found attached (on you or pets) should be carefully removed with a fine-tipped tweezers.  Grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible and gently pull straight out, being careful not to dislodge the head into the skin.  Thoroughly wash the bite area, and monitor for signs of irritation or rash.

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