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Research performed by the CDC shows us that as many as 30,000 people are diagnosed with Lyme Disease in the USA each year. This bacterial infection causes a very distinct circular skin rash along with other symptoms such as headache, muscle pain, and fatigue.
Ticks are responsible for transmitting Lyme Disease to humans, so it’s essential that we protect ourselves when out in the wild. Hikers are particularly at risk of tick bites, along with campers, and trail runners. Enjoying an active outdoor lifestyle is great for your physical and mental health, but you should always take precautions to avoid being bitten by a tick.
What are Ticks?
Ticks are often thought of as an insect, but they’re actually a member of the arachnid family. These spider-like creatures come in a range of sizes, although the largest don’t tend to be much bigger than a baked bean. Smaller ticks in the larval stage may only be the size of a freckle, so may be harder to spot.
Ticks have four life stages and during each of these stages, they will feed on the blood of animals such as mice, deer, and birds. Between the egg, larva, nymph, and adult stages, the ticks enter a period of dormancy in order to molt.
Ticks prefer moist, warm environments and are often found in woodlands, grasslands, moorlands, and sometimes, even in your backyard. If there is long grass and a lot of leaf litter, there’s a good chance that there will be ticks.
One of the biggest concerns for humans that come into contact with ticks is contracting Lyme Disease. But it’s important to note that not all ticks carry this, and they don’t begin their life being infected and only get the disease when they feed off an infected animal. However, there are other health risks attached to tick bites, including Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Anaplasmosis, Babesiosis, and Tularemia.
Ticks Commonly Found in North America
There are around 900 species of ticks around the world; 700 of these are hard ticks (Ixodidae) while the remaining 200 are soft ticks (Argasidae). However, fortunately, there are only a handful of these different species that are known to be a risk to humans. If you’re out and about in North America, it can help to be able to identify the types of ticks that may cause a problem here.
Deer Tick (Ixodes scapularis)
The deer tick is sometimes referred to as the black-legged tick and this is one of the types of tick that is known to carry Lyme Disease. That is because this type of tick carries borrelia burgdorferi which is the root cause of the disease. As well as this, the deer tick can transmit babesiosis, Powassan virus, deer tick virus, and Bartonella.
The deer tick can be found in most parts of the eastern US but is also now commonly found throughout northern, central, and southern areas. They prefer areas where their hosts can be found and these include birds, mice, and deer.
You can tell a deer tick apart from other ticks because of its markings with the females having a bright orange body. However, the males are brown or black in color. These ticks are smaller than some other American species including the brown dog tick. The females in the nymph stage are the most problematic to humans.
American Dog (Wood) Tick (Dermacentor variabilis)
The American dog tick is most commonly linked with spreading Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and tularemia. These ticks are found along the Pacific coast of North America and in the Rocky Mountains.
You’ll normally find them during spring and summer, and they’re easy to identify, thanks to their dark brown coloration. The females have an off-white colored shield, but if you see a male, you’re looking for more mottled markings. They are quite similar in appearance to the deer tick and have a flat body.
Lone Star Tick (Amblyomma americanum)
You’ll find the lone star tick across the eastern and southeastern parts of the United States. These ticks have a brown body with a single white spot on their back, so they’re quite easy to tell apart from other varieties.
One of the most concerning diseases transmitted by the lone star tick is alpha-gal syndrome (AGS) which causes an allergic reaction to red meat. In some cases, this reaction can be life-threatening and has also been linked to heart disease. Other common diseases spread by this type of tick are heartland virus and tularemia.
Lone star ticks are more common in spring and it is those in the nymphal and adult stages that pose the greatest risk.
Groundhog Tick (Ixodes cookei)
The groundhog tick is sometimes called the woodchuck tick and has a much lighter coloration than some other species. However, they do bear a resemblance to the deer tick but the good news is that this species has not been known to transmit Lyme Disease. As adults, the females are quite small and don’t tend to get much larger than a sesame seed.
Groundhog ticks are dangerous during all stages of life and are often found throughout the whole of the eastern United States. While Lyme Disease isn’t a problem with these ticks, they are one of the leading causes of Powassan virus.
Brown Dog Tick (Rhipicephalus sanguineus)
Compared to other ticks, the brown dog tick has a slimmer body. It has reddish brown coloration and is closely associated with the spread of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. However, if you are a dog walker, you should also be mindful that this species is dangerous to dogs and is known for transmitting a variety of diseases to these domestic animals.
What’s most worrying is that the brown dog tick can be a problem during all of its life stages. They’ll quite happily thrive indoors and can often be found in homes where there are dogs. They are more common in warm climates but can be found all over the country.
Rocky Mountain Wood Tick (Dermacentor andersoni)
The rocky mountain wood tick is associated with the spread of several diseases, including Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, the Colorado tick fever virus, and tularemia. However, what’s worrying about this type of tick is that it has a toxin in its saliva that can cause temporary paralysis in humans and animals.
You’ll find these ticks in scrublands and woodland as well as on hiking trails. While they are active all year round, they tend to subside in activity when the weather is very hot. You’ll find them throughout the Rocky Mountain states as well as into southern parts of Canada, but they’re usually found at higher elevations above 4000 feet.
To identify this type of tick, look for a bright red tear-shaped body. Males have white and gray spotted markings while females have a white shield.
Pacific Coast Tick (Dermacentor occidentalis)
You’ll find the Pacific coast tick in southwestern parts of the US as well as further down into Mexico. These ticks have a brown-black mottled body with the females having a white shield. While this type of tick is relatively uncommon, many people often confuse them with other species. That said, if you’re in California, this is one of the most common ticks you’ll see.
The Pacific coast tick can spread the Colorado tick virus as well as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. They also carry diseases such as tularemia and their bite can cause a pretty unpleasant wound.
Western Blacklegged Tick (Ixodes pacificus)
The Western blacklegged tick is primarily found in California but it is sometimes also found in Oregon, Utah, Arizona, Washington, and Nevada. It enjoys grassy areas, especially along the coast as well as woodlands, particularly those with a lot of fir trees.
These ticks are one of those that carry Lyme Disease so you must be extra careful when hiking in areas where they are prevalent. But they also transmit diseases such as Bartonella, ehrlichiosis, and babesiosis.
The Western blacklegged tick looks remarkably similar to the deer tick and would often need an expert, or at least a microscope to be able to tell them apart. They have black shields with a red-colored body.
What is Lyme Disease?
Lyme Disease is a bacterial infection that is usually accompanied by a rash that looks like a bullseye target. While this is often the first symptom, things can get worse if the condition is not treated immediately.
Other signs that you may have Lyme Disease include flu-like symptoms, joint or muscle pain, feeling tired, headaches, and a raised temperature. Fortunately, because Lyme Disease is a bacterial infection, it can often be successfully treated in the early stages using antibiotics.
However, it is important to note that recovering from this condition can often take months, and some people develop complications that require hospital treatment and ongoing blood tests.
How to Protect Against Tick Bites While Out Hiking
Just because there are ticks in the wild, that doesn’t mean that humans shouldn’t enjoy nature. However, you will want to protect yourself from tick bites and the following advice can play an important role in keeping you safe.
1. Keep Bare Skin Covered
If ticks cannot get access to your skin, then they cannot bite you. So making sure that you cover all bare skin is the most obvious place to start.
Note that ticks have a habit of crawling up, so this means they will often get up the leg of your pants. By tucking your pant legs into your socks, you can eliminate this risk.
Make sure that you always wear long-sleeved tops. In hot weather, go for something lightweight that still offers good coverage of the skin.
2. Put on Insect Repellent
Like many other critters, ticks can be deterred using insect repellent. You can apply Permethrin to your clothes as the first line of defense and what’s great about this is that it will remain on your clothes after you’ve washed them so one application will usually last a few hiking trips. Don’t forget to also apply it to your backpack and any other fabric items you are carrying.
It’s essential to look over the safety information on products like Permethrin to ensure they’re suitable for your personal use. If you have pets then make sure to apply Permethrin outdoors as the product is known to be toxic to cats.
Another excellent product is Deet which can be applied to the skin and acts as a repellent to ticks and other insects. We wouldn’t recommend using Deet on clothing or fabric as it will likely stain.
3. Wear Appropriate Hiking Boots
Hiking boots don’t only keep your feet comfortable and safe when you’re out discovering nature but they’re also difficult for ticks to get into. They’re made from thick materials and fit around the foot without any gaps so they’ll keep any biters out.
4. Wear Light-Colored Clothing
Wearing light-colored clothing isn’t going to repel ticks but it will make them easier to see. If a tick crawls onto you, there’s a much greater chance of spotting it if it stands out against your clothing. What’s more, in summer light-colored garments will keep you cooler so you’re killing two birds with one stone.
5. Keep to Trails & Avoid Overgrown Areas
Ticks love grassy areas with a lot of overgrowth and leaf litter so if you can avoid these, you are less likely to be targeted by a tick.
Ticks don’t jump but rather wait for you to walk past and then they simply crawl onto you. But it can be extremely difficult to see them in thick undergrowth. So, when you’re out hiking, try to stick to the marked paths where possible.
6. Perform a Tick Check & Shower Afterwards
Amazingly, you may not even spot a tick when it bites you so it’s essential to check yourself when you return from your hike.
Start by checking all of your clothing and backpack as ticks love to hop onto these and then set up home in your house. If you do find any ticks on your garments, pop them into the tumble dryer for 20 minutes and this should be enough to kill them. In any case, we would recommend washing your clothes on a hot wash just to be sure.
You’ll also need to check your body for ticks and there are certain places that these critters prefer. Since they like moist, dark areas, you may find them in the following places:
- The hair
- The underarms
- The groin
- Behind the knees and inside the elbows
- Behind the ears
- Around the neck
- Inside the belly button
But don’t settle for just looking for ticks, you will need to feel around as some ticks can be very small and will often go unnoticed during a visual inspection. In fact, some are as small as a pinhead so it can be useful to use a magnifying glass to help you get a closer look.
If you have a pet then it’s also worth checking them over to make sure that they haven’t brought home a hitchhiker.
When you have given yourself a thorough check, you should get into the shower as this should wash away any unwanted guests. What’s more, this is the perfect opportunity to double-check for ticks.
How to Remove Ticks Safely
The sooner you remove a tick, the less likely it will be that you contract Lyme Disease. Those who manage to remove the tick within 24 hours stand the best chance of avoiding the condition.
It’s important not to try and pull the tick off using your fingers or try to burn it off using a lighter. This can make the tick regurgitate its stomach contents which increases the chances of getting a disease.
Here are some tips on how to safely remove a tick:
- Make sure to use the correct equipment such as a tick key or tick spoon. A pair of tweezers is also suitable.
- Take hold of the tick as close to your skin as possible.
- Pull it straight off using even pressure. Do not try to twist the tick as its barbed teeth will make this method of removal almost impossible.
- When the tick is removed, clean and disinfect the affected area and thoroughly wash your hands.
- If you have removed the tick within the first 24 hours, it’s unlikely you will become ill but it’s still a good idea to monitor your condition over the coming days.
Common Signs & Symptoms of Lyme Disease
One of the earliest and most common signs of Lyme Disease is the skin rash left behind at the bite site. This is a circular rash that is often similar to a bullseye target. Do note that not all cases of Lyme Disease result in this rash. In some cases, the patient may develop Bell’s Palsy which causes dropping of the face.
Other early symptoms of Lyme Disease include those that are similar to flu. You may experience fever, headaches, aching muscles, and joints, as well as a lack of energy. Some people experience shooting pain, shortness of breath, and heart palpitations. But what’s concerning is that Lyme Disease is often misdiagnosed in its early stages.
If Lyme Disease is not treated, it can become chronic and this can bring on a much more serious range of conditions. It is known that advanced Lyme Disease can affect the nervous system and the brain but there may be complications involving other parts of the body including the digestive system, reproductive system, and the heart.
If you have the classic Lyme Disease rash and are experiencing flu-like symptoms then now is a good time to contact a medical professional. Explain that you have recently been in a tick-infested area and ask for blood tests to determine whether you have Lyme Disease.