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A Bad Year for Ticks? Take Steps to Protect Yourself

Earlier this week during my lunch break, I sat in my home dining room eating with my three-year-old. As our conversation strayed from preschool to Star Wars, a slight tickle on my side encouraged a scratch. Reaching over, I felt through my shirt the slightest bump. Immediately, it was clear this was no ordinary itch to scratch. I had a tick crawling up my side.

Going to the bathroom, I lifted my shirt thankful to see the tick had yet to find a suitable biting site. I plucked off the bloodsucker and flushed it down the toilet.

That same day in the garden, something happened that had never transpired to me before. There were ticks everywhere! Skittering across my raised beds, on my garden bucket, on the potting bench! I have never seen so many ticks crawling around the backyard. Somehow I avoided picking up any more hitchhikers that afternoon.

It seems the news reports are correct; this may be a bad year for ticks. Are you starting to itch yet?

Types of Tick

Ticks come in a variety of different species. In Illinois, our most common tick found feeding on our pets, and us is the American dog tick. While some ticks can be found feeding on humans, several species do not attack people. The brown dog tick seeks canines and won't be found feeding on humans.

Deer ticks often receive the most attention as the primary carriers of Lyme disease. During their first year of life, the tiny deer tick larva is only slightly larger than the period at the end of this sentence. Deer tick larva feeds primarily on white-footed field mice their first year. The next spring, deer ticks molt into a slightly larger, pin-head sized nymph, which feeds on various larger animals, including people. During the fall of the second year, deer ticks molt to adults and feed primarily on deer.

Although rare in Central Illinois, in areas where they are more prevalent, deer ticks are commonly found in the leaf litter on forest floors. Which leaves hikers, campers, conservation workers, and gardeners more at risk to picking up a deer tick. Other species of ticks can be found in various habitats. I often encounter ticks in overgrown, weedy areas or prairie.

Protect Yourself from Ticks

If you are headed outside to a location suitable for ticks, there are ways to protect yourself.

  • First is to avoid weedy areas, prairies, or the woods. For most, that is not an option.
  • Wear long pants with the cuffs tucked into your socks. Don't worry this look is in vogue in tick country.
  • Apply an insect repellent containing DEET to socks, pants, boots, and exposed skin areas.
  • Wear a hat.
  • Ticks are dark colored. Therefore, wear light-colored clothing so they stand out and can be easily removed.
  • When working or hiking in the woods or brush, occasionally stop to do a quick group tick check.
  • At home do a thorough inspection for any ticks that may have found their way under your clothing or in your hair.
  • Shower, shampoo and do another check of the entire body.
  • Wash clothes immediately in hot water.

Removing a Tick

If you or your 'tick buddy' spots a tick attached to you, remove it with tweezers. Grasp the tick with the tweezers as close to head as possible and pull straight off. Do not use a lighted match, twist, or apply gasoline to a feeding tick. These home remedies can often cause more harm and increase the chance of infection.

Immediately wash the bite and your hands. Monitor the site for any secondary infection. Symptoms of Lyme disease are flu-like and include fever, chills, nausea, and aching joints. If symptoms appear, contact your physician.