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Protect yourself from tick-borne infection

August 06, 2019 | UCI Health
mother protecting her son from ticks
Wear shirts with long sleeves, long pants and high socks to decrease the chances that ticks will get onto your skin.

Across California, summer vacationers are venturing into wildland areas populated by deer and other animals that carry ticks, which can transmit Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and several other infections.

Lyme-infected ticks are more of a problem on the East Coast and in the northernmost coastal areas of California.

But they also can be found in Southern California, especially in cool, moist areas such ravines, gullies and wetlands with plenty of vegetation, says Dr. Robert J. Katzer, a UCI Health emergency medicine physician and expert in wilderness medicine and rescue.

How ticks find you

Ticks usually position themselves at the end of grasses, rushes or leaves and wait for an unsuspecting host to pass by.  

“They can sense carbon dioxide from human breath, scent and heat,” Katzer says. “They don’t fly or bounce, they simply release and grab on when the timing is right.”

Ticks are tiny, eight-legged insects feed on the blood of animals, including:

  • Birds
  • Rodents
  • Deer
  • Humans

They can be small as poppy seeds or up to about one-eighth-inch long, depending on their life stage and the species. They expand in size as they draw blood.

How to check your body for ticks

If you spend time outdoors, it’s important to be vigilant about ticks. When you return from an outdoors adventure, do a full-body check after showering.

You will need help from a friend or family member to check your scalp and back thoroughly. It’s also a good idea to run your clothes through a hot wash and high-heat dryer cycle to kill any remaining ticks, which are susceptible to heat.

If you find a tick, remove it properly as soon as possible.

Katzer says it is generally thought that if you remove a tick within 24 hours, it has not had time to infect you with Lyme disease — by far the disease most frequently spread by ticks in California.

Curable with early treatment

Most people who’ve been infected with Lyme disease will see a red rash at the site of the tick or other places on the body.

The rash enlarges over several days so that it has a red ring with a clear or bluish center, resembling a sort of bull’s-eye.

Treated at this early stage with antibiotics, Lyme disease is curable.

Treatment becomes a little more complicated when later symptoms appear, which include flu-like complaints of:

  • Fever
  • Joint aches
  • Malaise

How to remove a tick

Contrary to methods you might have heard — touching a match to a tick, or dousing it with alcohol, nail polish or Vaseline — the right way to remove a tick is with a pair of tweezers.

  • Grab the tick with tweezers at the closest point to skin.
  • Pinch the tweezers firmly so you don’t lose your grip on it.
  • Pull directly out — don’t twist or try to “unscrew” the tick.
  • If the head remains stuck, go back in with the tweezers to remove it.

If you think the tick has been in your skin for 24 hours or more, Katzer recommends saving it in a container and taking it to your primary care doctor to evaluate whether it’s the kind that carries disease. Avoid touching it with your hands, unless you want to remove it again.

Take precautions outdoors

Protect yourself against ticks much as you would against the sun, Katzer says. He recommends the following precautions when taking a hike:

  • Wear shirts with long sleeves, long pants and high socks to decrease the chances that ticks will get onto your skin.
  • Wear light-colored clothing, making ticks easier to spot.
  • Tuck pant legs into high socks.
  • Use bug repellent that includes some percentage of DEET on exposed areas of skin.
  • Permethrin, an insect repellent that is available by prescription, can be applied to clothing to repel ticks but do not put it on your skin.
  • Keep to the center of trails, avoiding the shrubs and bushes where ticks are usually found.

And if your pets accompany you on your hikes, be sure to check them carefully for ticks, too.

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