Tick Talk: How to Reduce the Risk of Tick Bites

June 15, 2022

Spring and summer bring warm, sunny days and blooming flora, along with an increase in the miniscule, insect-like creature—the tick.  

Many common myths surround this infamous parasite, including: 

  • You can feel a tick bite you. Ticks have highly-specialized mouth parts that allow them to attach into the skin of a host in a covert manner and avoid detection. 
  • Ticks get on people and pets by falling out of trees. Ticks do not jump or fall, but rather will transport when a dog or human rubs up against the tick’s current location, typically in tall grasses or bushes.  
  • Ticks die each winter (or when it’s cold out). Ticks live throughout the year but are most active in spring and summer.  
  • Once you’ve been bitten, you will get sick. Tick bites don’t automatically mean you will get ill. However, tick bites, especially if not removed within 24 hours, can transfer existing illnesses, like Lyme disease, to humans or animals.  
  • The best way to remove a tick from the skin is by burning it or removing with your fingers. The recommended way to remove a tick is to grab (using tweezers or a tick-specific tool) as close to the skin’s surface as possible and pull the tick in an upward motion. 

Pictured above is a female American dog tick. Photo courtesy of Kim Fake.

Did you know that public health risks from tick-borne diseases are increasing in the United States, particularly in the Midwest? Some tick-borne diseases (e.g. Lyme disease) can cause life-long illness with diverse symptoms. 

Lincoln Park Zoo scientists are currently in the field in the Chicago metropolitan area investigating the relationship between mammal host communities, tick densities, and tick-borne disease. The major goal of this project is to better understand how urban sprawl affects human risk of tick-borne diseases. The zoo’s scientists hope that their research will increase understanding of the dynamics between wildlife, ticks, and humans in cities, helping to reduce future conflict and improve wildlife and human health. 

To be able to best diagnosis, treat, and prevent tickborne diseases, it’s helpful to know what the risk of various tickborne diseases are in different areas of Illinois. In 2021, the zoo’s scientists surveyed 15 sites in the Chicago Metropolitan area, including sites in Dupage, Lake, and Cook County. They detected populations of blacklegged ticks in addition to the Lyme pathogen in all 3 counties, including some fairly urban greenspaces within Chicago.  

How exactly is the zoo surveying for ticks?

Researchers use a “drag cloth” method, which consists of dragging a flannel cloth over vegetation and leaf litter to mimic the movement of an animal through the space. Ticks that latch onto the flannel are removed with forceps and then placed in vials of ethanol to preserve them for pathogen testing.

Researchers use a “drag cloth” method. Photo courtesy of Kim Fake.

The collected ticks are sent to collaborators at the Medical Entomology Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for species identification and diagnostic testing for common pathogens. This work is part of the tick-borne disease surveillance program which is funded by the Illinois Department of Public Health. 

The key to staying safe this summer when enjoying time outdoors is education and prevention. Don’t be scared, be prepared! There are many ways to reduce your risk of tick bites. Check out the tips below to safely enjoy outdoor spaces: 

Know where you might encounter a tick 

Ticks live in grassy, bushy, or wooded areas and are typically most active when the weather is warm. When engaging in outdoor activities, be sure to take preventive measures to keep yourself safe. 

Wear the right clothing 

Long-sleeved shirts and long pants can limit your exposure to ticks. Try out some light-weight clothing with more coverage on your next hike, and be sure to tuck your pant legs into your socks for additional protection. 

Use insect repellent 

Insect repellents that contain DEET, picaridin, IR3535, or oil of lemon eucalyptus can be used on skin and clothing to repel ticks and prevent tick bites. Permethrin products can be used to treat hiking boots, clothing, and camping gear and remains protective through several washings. For all products, be sure to read the labels on their respective containers for proper usage instructions. 

Check for ticks 

Following outdoor activity in spaces where you might encounter ticks, always inspect yourself and your pets for ticks. Check under the arms, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, behind your knees, in and around hair, between the legs, and around the waist. You never know where you may find a tick! If you spot one, stay calm and remove it. 

Can you spot the tick? Photo courtesy of Kim Fake.

Pro tip: you can track ticks in Illinois by using Illinois Department of Public Health’s interactive tick surveillance map. Access it HERE.

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