Forget Murder Hornets -- Ticks Are A Bigger Threat Right Now

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
Wood Tick on finger
Scary Mommy and ArtBoyMB/Getty

Because we’re social distancing, most of us are desperate to get outside. For many of us, that means living in the backyard. For other (very lucky) people, that means going where no one is and hiking. But don’t think you’re safe just because you’re standing far more than the regulation six feet away from other human beings. If you haven’t spent a lot of time outdoors before — and even if you have, in the sheer joy of fleeing your home — you may not realize you need to worry about something else that can make you very, very sick lurking out there: ticks.

Ticks are often found in areas where they can find a lot of prey, like grassy or wooded areas: places where there might be lots of “deer, rabbits, birds, lizards, squirrels, mice, and other rodents,” according to IGeneX, a testing lab that specializes in tick-borne diseases. But they’re also common in urban areas. Anywhere that might attract mice, like woodpiles or the brush under birdfeeders, is also a good place to find ticks. They also like moist, humid environments. Got places like that in your backyard, where your children spend like, practically all their time these days? We do.

Common Types of Ticks … And the Nasties They Carry

You’re most likely, wherever you are in the United States, to encounter a dog tick. Those are the familiar brown ticks you’ve probably seen that feed on humans; they’re brown with some white mottling. If you’ve had a tick, you’ve probably had a dog tick.

And those ticks may be common, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be nasty. Dog ticks can carry a disease called Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, which is also spread by the wood tick and the brown dog tick, according to the CDC. It can happen throughout the US, but it’s most common in the South, particularly “North Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.”

RMSF starts with a fever and headache, and progresses to a rash: which can vary from a pinprick rash to red splotches. Sometimes it doesn’t develop early in the illness. So it’s important, the CDC says, that if you develop things like fever, nausea, vomiting, headache, lack of appetite, stomach pain, and muscle pain after being in a tick-prone area, you should call your doctor — RMSF can be deadly, and can lead to death or limb amputation if it’s not treated properly.

Luckily, however, a dog tick is at least big enough to see. A deer tick? It’s the size of a period at the end of this sentence. According to National Geographic, it’s now known as the black-legged tick, and carries the dreaded Lyme disease — 30,000 cases of which are reported annually. And that’s an underestimate since this number only includes those actually reported to the CDC.

How tell if you’ve been bitten by a deer tick? You’ll get the tell-tale bull’s eye rash — and you need a doctor, stat. The quicker treatment starts, the quicker recovery can be, says the Mayo Clinic — and untreated Lyme disease can wreak havoc on a person. Treatment includes oral or intravenous antibiotics, depending on your particular case. Persistent Lyme disease that isn’t caught quickly enough can become debilitating.

While these are the two biggies you need to watch out for, there are several other important ticks and tick-borne diseases to keep an eye out for. The Lone Star Tick, for example, can carry several diseases, and its bite has been associated, according to the CDC, with a subsequent allergy to all red meat.

Basically, if you get any kind of tick bite, or you’re out in the woods and have a follow-up fever and odd symptoms: call your doctor.

How to Prevent Bites

You can douse your kids in bug spray as a first line of defense, says the CDC: something containing “DEET, picaridin, IR3535, Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD), or 2-undecanone.” Do not use oil of lemon eucalyptus or para-menthane-diol on kids under three. If you’re like me, and you would prefer not to spray your kids with DEET every time they walk out the back door (though we do use bug spray because of mosquitoes), you can also follow several other steps:

– Avoid areas with ticks. (Ha, thanks, CDC. Tell that to your kids.)

– Check your clothing for ticks.

– Examine all the stuff the kids drag in — and your pets. Ticks can attach to them, then attach to people later.

– Examine yourself and your kids, head to toe, including hair and nether regions.

– Shower within two hours of being outside. There was never a better reason for a nightly bath.

If You Find One On Yourself Or Your Kid

Take deep breaths. Ticks are generally harmless, despite everything you’ve read above; they’re mostly just gross.

If you’ve made yourself a tick kit — which you should, if you spend any time at all outdoors — it will contain everything you need to safely remove the tick and clean the area afterward.

The CDC says to use fine-grip tweezers to grip the tick as close to the skin as possible, then gently pull upwards with a steady, even pressure. If the mouth-parts don’t come with it, and you can’t easily get them off, leave them alone and let the skin heal. Wash the whole shebang with soap and water.

While you can flush it down the toilet or put it in alcohol to kill it, we recommend placing any ticks you’ve pulled off a human being into a sealed bag in case a doctor needs to identify them or deal with them for further testing (it can make a big difference, for example, if you just pulled off a Lone Star Tick or a dog tick).

But For the Most Part, Ticks Are Just Icky

Don’t freak out. Stay calm. Yes, they’re nasty little bloodsuckers, and yes, if you have weird symptoms, follow up with your doctor. But not every tick bite is going to lead to disease; lots and lots of us (raises hand) have been bitten by ticks numerous times without suffering any ill effects. So just gently pull that bloodsucker off, don’t panic (or else your kid will panic), and keep an eye out for any developing symptoms. With some vigilance and safety precautions, you should be able to keep your family safe. We spend plenty of time in the woods year-round, and we’ve never had a problem.

So take a deep breath, open the back door, and let the kids play. Forewarned is forearmed.

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