Every spring, after months spent dormant or latched onto a host, those teeny-tiny creatures we all know and hate — ticks — begin to reemerge. Spend time outdoors, and it’s not unlikely to encounter one.
“They find their way to the tip of grass or branches, and they sit there and wait with their two front legs out,” says Michael Bentley, a staff entomologist for the National Pest Management Association. “At the ends of their legs are these two little hooks that act like velcro, and once something walks by, they latch on.”
The ticks are hungry for blood. Without it, they won’t survive. And that’s a problem, because many species feed on humans and can transmit diseases, like Lyme disease, the most common tick-borne illness in the northeast. According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Pennsylvania had the highest annual numbers of reported Lyme’s disease cases in the country as of 2018.
“We have this perfect storm for how ticks survive and how individuals become exposed, with large pockets of forested areas and communities that border those forests, and a lot of outdoor recreation,” says Nicole Chinnici, director of East Stroudsburg University’s Dr. Jane Huffman Wildlife Genetics Institute.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to protect yourself. Here’s how to identify the most common tick species in the region, ways to lower your chances of getting bit, and what to do if a tick latches on.
What ticks are found near Philadelphia?
There are three common species in Pennsylvania that can affect both humans and animals:
Blacklegged ticks (more commonly known as the deer tick): About the size of a poppy seed, these are the smallest among the three species. The females have a red and brown body, and the males are brown. Blacklegged ticks are the only species that can transmit Lyme disease to humans.
American dog ticks: Oval in shape, these are the largest ticks you’ll see in the region, growing up to a half-inch long when fully engorged. They have a brown body with white markings. While they don’t transmit Lyme disease, they can transmit other diseases, like Tularemia and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
Lone star ticks: Lone star ticks are brown, and the females have a characteristic white dot that marks their back. They can transmit diseases, including Tularemia and southern tick-associated rash illness, a rash-producing disease that can be confused with Lyme disease.
Ticks can vary in size and coloration. But like spiders and others in the arachnid family, all have eight legs, except right after they hatch, in the larva stage, when you’ll spot just six.
What to do if you get a tick bite
While each species has its own distinctive features, it can be hard to identify ticks with an untrained eye. Not only are ticks small, but when they’re filled with blood, a lot of the identifying characteristics people rely on, like coloration, are diminished, notes Bentley.
“If you get bit, the best recommendation is to try to remove it properly and as soon as possible, save it, and bring it to a pest management professional or medical professional,” he says.
Ticks can carry multiple diseases, which can make medical diagnosis and treatment tricky without knowing the species of the tick. Save the tick in a Ziploc bag and take it to your doctor or a lab, like the East Stroudsburg University’s Dr. Jane Huffman Wildlife Genetics Institute, which offers free tick identification and testing for all Pennsylvania residents. (Find mailing instructions at ticklab.org.) They’ll take your tick dead or alive, and you’ll get a report within three business days that shows what diseases, if any, you’ve been exposed to. “Bring that to your doctor,” says Chinnici. “That tick can tell you about a lot of the symptoms you may be experiencing.”
Do you have to get every tick tested? It’s better to be safe than sorry, says Chinnici. If you can’t save the tick for testing, monitor your body for any changes to your health, and communicate any symptoms to your doctor. Fever, chills, rash, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes are all early signs of Lyme disease. Symptoms vary across other tick-borne illnesses.
How to prevent tick bites
Ticks are most active April through September, and they love grassy, brushy, and wooded areas. This makes it important to be mindful not only when you’re going out for a hike, but even when you’re just hanging out in your own backyard.
Your best line of defense, says Bentley, is to conduct a thorough, full-body tick check whenever you return from an outdoor activity.
“Do it before you hop into your car or as soon as you step inside, and be sure to take your time,” says Bentley. “Ticks are going to look for a fold, a nook, or a cranny where they can remain relatively protected, so you want to make sure you’re checking from head to toe, including your armpit areas, hair, and any area that naturally creates a seam on your body, like around your sock lines or where your pants hug your body.”
Other places to check include inside your belly button, around your ears, between your legs, and on the back of the knees.
Consider taking a shower as soon as you return, too. Showering within two hours of coming indoors has been shown to reduce your risk of getting Lyme disease and may be effective in reducing the risk of other tick-borne disease, says the CDC, noting that it may help wash off unattached ticks.
Throw your clothes into the dryer while you’re at it. “Sometimes ticks can be crawling on your clothes, and just 10 to 20 minutes in the dryer at high heat will kill them,” says Chinnici.
If you’ve got pets, check them from head to toe, too. Pay a close eye to the inside of their ears and in between their toes, says Bentley. It’s also important to treat your pets with tick-preventative products so they don’t carry ticks inside. Talk with your veterinarian about the best options for your dog.
How to protect yourself outdoors
Before heading outside, consider using insect repellant. Look for Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellents that contain DEET, picaridin, IR3535, Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD), or 2-undecanone.
When hiking, avoid the edges of the trail, and wear protective clothing, like long pants and high socks. “Choose light-colored clothing simply because it makes it easier to see ticks on you,” says Bentley.
How to control ticks in your yard
To reduce tick populations in your backyard, keep your lawn trimmed, and clear any tall grasses and brush that may be at its edges. “Thick vegetation is a great environment for ticks, but also for other potential hosts like mice,” says Bentley.
Keep playground equipment away from the edges of the yard, or create a three-foot wide barrier of wood chips or gravel between your lawn and any wooded areas.
It’s also important to remove leaf litter. “Ticks like cool and moist areas, so you want to create a warmer, and dryer area. You may even want to trim back the trees to allow for more sunlight,” says Chinnici.
“There’s no silver bullet for avoiding ticks, but doing a combination of home, personal, and pet prevention is what’s going to make a difference,” she adds.
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