Living Columns & Blogs

Avoid summer hitchhikers

The return of warm weather to central Pennsylvania draws many of us outdoors to hike, camp, mountain bike and picnic. Unfortunately, balmy temperatures also encourage ticks to leave their winter hiding places in search of their next meal. Plan now to limit your exposure to ticks and the diseases they carry.

Ticks are parasites, meaning they live on other organisms. They lurk on the tips of vegetation, waiting to hop on a passing animal, bird, reptile, amphibian or human. Once on board, a tick bites into the skin, inserts its feeding tube and feasts on the host’s blood for several days. If the host carries a disease — such as Lyme disease — the tick can pick up the illness and transport it to the next host.

Don’t give ticks a ride

The easiest way to avoid becoming a tick host is to stay away from favorite tick hiding places. For example, when you’re hiking, walk in the middle of the trail so you’re less likely to brush against trees, shrubs and grasses.

Most people pitch their tents in clearings, so your campsite should be relatively tick-free — until you venture into vegetation in search of firewood.

Wear long pants and long sleeves to make it more difficult for ticks to reach your skin. Apply a repellant that contains 20 to 30 percent DEET to your exposed skin and your clothing for protection that lasts several hours. Parents should take care of this task for young children, avoiding the hands, eyes and mouth. You also can treat your clothing and camping gear with a product containing 0.5 percent permethrin for protection that lasts through several washings. Some outdoor clothing and gear is pretreated with permethrin.

At home, make your yard a tick-free zone by keeping your grass trimmed and removing leaf litter. Ticks hate hot, dry areas, so a 3-foot-wide area of wood chips at the edge of the yard discourages ticks from moving in. If your yard backs up to fields or forest, keep playground equipment away from the edges. Don’t feed deer or other animals that can transport ticks into your yard.

If you’re worried that you might have encountered ticks, throw your clothes in the dryer on high heat for an hour to kill any hitchhikers. Before you get dressed again, shower and check your skin for ticks. Brush any pets that accompanied you on your outing, and check them for ticks as well. Finally, look over day packs and other gear.

How to remove a tick

If you find a tick attached to your skin despite taking these precautions, don’t panic. Use a pair of tweezers to grasp the tick as close to your skin as possible, and pull directly away from the skin without twisting. Then wash the area with soap and water. If part of the tick’s mouth remains in your skin, leave it there and it will eventually fall off. Digging at your skin to remove it is more dangerous because it can result in infection. If a tick is lodged in a part of your body you can’t reach, or if you’re too disgusted to remove the parasite yourself, visit your doctor.

Ignore folk remedies suggested by well-meaning friends. There’s no need to paint a tick with nail polish or suffocate it with petroleum jelly or — worst of all — burn it off. Simply grasp, pull and remove.

In central Pennsylvania, the illness most likely to be carried by ticks is Lyme disease. Make an appointment with your primary care doctor if you see Lyme disease’s signature bull’s-eye rash on your skin or if you have been exposed to ticks within the past few weeks and have other symptoms such as joint pain, headache or fever.

When you remove a tick within 36 hours, the risk of disease transmission is low — and many ticks do not carry disease. By using a repellant and staying away from tick-ridden areas, you can enjoy outdoor summer activities without worry.

Christopher Heron is a family medicine physician with Penn State Medical Group.