What You Need to Know About Tick Season

It's important to be vigilant about ticks when outdoors

|  Story by Meghan McMahon |

After a long winter, nothing compares to spending time outside. But in Will County, mid- to late spring also marks the season when it’s most important to be vigilant about ticks when outdoors. 

According to a report released May 1 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tick-borne illnesses, along with those caused by mosquito and flea bites, more than tripled in the United States between 2004 and 2016.

While tick season continues through the summer into mid-fall, the life cycle of different tick species varies and plays a role in when they are most likely to be found on humans.

At least 15 tick species can be found in Illinois, but the Illinois Department of Public Health reports that only a handful are typically encountered by humans: the American dog tick, sometimes referred to as the wood tick; the blacklegged tick, more commonly known as the deer tick; the brown dog tick; the lone star tick; and the winter tick. 

American dog tick (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Of the five tick species encountered by humans, three – the American dog tick, the blacklegged tick and the lone star tick — are known to transmit diseases to humans, the public health department states. In Illinois, the most common diseases associated with tick bites are Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and ehrlichiosis. 

Ticks – which are actually arachnids and not insects, as commonly thought – are divided into two categories, hard ticks and soft ticks. Hard ticks have a hard shield behind their mouth parts and are shaped like a flat seed when they are unfed, while soft ticks do not have a shield and more typically resemble a raisin in shape, the Department of Public Health reports.

The species most often "picked up" by humans are the hard ticks commonly found in Illinois, explained Glen Buckner, wildlife ecologist for the Forest Preserve. Soft ticks, on the other hand, feed on bats and birds and are not usually encountered by humans unless they are nesting or roosting in a building.

 

After ticks hatch, they must consume blood from humans and other animals for survival. Because they feed on different animals during different stages of their lives, they can pick up diseases and transfer them to their hosts. 

Tick-borne diseases can range from mild to severe, and many of the illness have similar symptoms, including fever, chills, body aches and pains, and a rash, the CDC reports. Rashes can vary depending on the illness. For example, with Lyme disease, a target- or bullseye-shaped rash is often the hallmark and typically develops before other symptoms. The rash that accompanies Rocky Mountain spotted fever can vary greatly from person to person, but typically starts as small, pink-colored, non-itchy spots that later proceed to a reddish or purple-colored spotted rash.

The CDC advises anyone who experiences a tick bite and develops symptoms associated with tick-related illness within a few weeks of the bite to consult a health-care provider.

Protecting Yourself from Tick Bites

The bullseye-shaped rash that comes with Lyme disease. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The best way to prevent tick-borne disease is to protect yourself against tick bites. To do so, it’s helpful to understand where ticks live and where you may encounter them. 

The tick species that are prevalent in Will County and throughout the state live in grasses and shrubs, and not in trees, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. Ticks move by crawling – they cannot fly or jump – so they typically lie in wait and then quickly move onto a host animal as it moves by. 

If you are in areas where ticks are known to be, you should take the following precautions to help avoid bites:

  • When walking on paths and trails, avoid brushing against tall grasses and weeds. When possible, leave some space between you and the trail’s edge, but be sure to keep in mind trail safety, etiquette and the fact that other users may be passing on your left.
  • Wear protective clothing, such as pants, long-sleeved shirts and boots, and tuck your pant legs into your socks. Light-colored clothing is also helpful because it will be easier to see a tick on lighter-colored clothes than on dark-colored items.
  • Use insect and tick repellents containing 10 to 30 percent DEET, but apply sparingly to exposed skin and avoid sensitive areas. Always follow the label directions when applying repellents.

Buckner also advised that people who spend time in grassy areas should check their clothes and body frequently to help catch and remove ticks before they bite. He said on days when he is working outdoors he checks himself during breaks or whenever he feels itchy or like a bug is crawling on him.

"You don’t want to bring them home," he said.

Once arriving home, it’s a good idea to immediately remove and check your clothes, and then launder them. This helps to prevent ticks from getting into your house or on other clothes. 

If you do find a tick, remove it immediately. If it’s already embedded itself, use tweezers and apply slow, steady pressure to remove it, not using more force than necessary, Buckner said. Don’t jerk or twist while pulling because that can cause the mouthparts to break off and remain in the skin.

(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The CDC recommends disposing of live ticks by placing them in alcohol and sealing them in a bag or container or, alternatively, flushing them down the toilet. Do not crush ticks with your hands or fingers.

Once a tick is removed, wash the site of the bite as well as your hands with soap and warm water and use an antiseptic on and around the area of the bite.

Many people have heard old wives’ tales about tick removal, but those tricks – burning a tick with a match or covering it with nail polish or petroleum jelly – should be avoided.

Help Monitor Ticks in Illinois

This year, as tick season gets underway, University of Illinois scientists are launching a new program, called I-TICK, to find out more about where and when Illinois residents are encountering ticks.

Through the program, several hubs have been identified throughout the state, and these hubs will serve as the distribution point for tick collection kits. The hubs will then collect the kits to send to university researchers for further study. 

I-TICK will rely on volunteers throughout Illinois, working with their local hubs, to collect ticks they find on themselves and to record data for the next five days, reporting this information and returning their collection kit within two weeks of the tick encounter. According to the university, ideal volunteer participants for the program are those who work outdoors regularly.

I-TICK scientists hope to collect 1,000 samples this year. The information obtained will contribute to the data on tick-borne illnesses and how it affects the health of Illinois residents.

If you are interested in participating in the I-TICK program, you can contact the University of Illinois Extension office for Will, Grundy and Kankakee counties at 815.727.9296.

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Lead image via Flickr

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