Summer dos and don’ts: Tick safety

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The black-legged tick, which is found in wooded areas across Indiana is responsible for transmitting Lyme disease to humans. (Photo provided/Centers for Disease Control website)
The black-legged tick, which is found in wooded areas across Indiana is responsible for transmitting Lyme disease to humans. (Photo provided/Centers for Disease Control website)

You just got home from a weekend camping trip, or maybe a too-long day at the park where your dog got loose in some tall grass. You are about to start a load of laundry or hop into the shower when you see it: a tick. Now what?

Ticks are common in the state of Indiana, with at least six different types of ticks appearing across the state. According to the Indiana Department of Health, there were 239 human cases of Lyme disease reported in Indiana in 2023, so here’s how to prevent bringing a tick home — and what to do if you find one.

“Especially this time of year, ticks are the thing you really want to worry about,” Lee Green, senior medical entomologist for IDOH, told the Recorder.

How do I know it is a tick?

Ticks are giant mites, not insects, Green said. Adult and nymphal ticks have eight legs, while larval ticks only have six legs.

In their immature stages, Green said nymphal ticks are “unbelievably small,” like the size of a poppy seed. Nymphal ticks do not carry as many diseases as adults because they are so small, but they are responsible for the vast majority of Lyme disease cases in humans.

The black-legged tick is the one responsible for transmitting Lyme disease and loves the woods and dark shady areas, Green said. They are susceptible to drying out and dying in the sun, so if they get on you, they will migrate to a darker area — like an armpit or your hair.

“Once it gets on you, it actually has to kind of embed and then be feeding for a few days,” Green said. “Early tick removal is extremely important for tick-borne disease, and because those little ones are questing right now, they’re much harder to see, which is why we see an increase in cases usually around Memorial Day and then in June.”

Marion County is also home to Lone Star ticks and American dog ticks, Green said. Lone Star ticks are brown with a white marking on their backs and like brushy, grassy areas at the edge of wooded areas while American dog ticks are brown with black, brown and white marbling on their backs and stick to tall grassy areas.

One of the common misconceptions about ticks is that they fall out of trees, but Green said this is not true.

“The way ticks find blood meal, in general, they crawl up on tall grass and just stick their legs out and wait for something to brush against them,” Green said. “So, if you are a hiker and go down the trail, as long as you stay in the middle of trails and don’t brush up against that tall grass, you actually won’t encounter ticks.”

How to prevent ticks

Ticks love to hide in hard-to-reach areas and will feed where they get lines — think armpits, back of necks, groin area, hair and clothing lines. Wearing clothing that properly covers these areas and a hat will help create a barrier to keep ticks away from your skin, Green said.

Dr. Varon Cantrell, chief medical officer at HealthNet, said hikers and campers should opt to wear lightweight and light-colored clothing with long sleeves and pants anytime they are in tall grassy or wooded areas to help keep ticks off skin and make tick detection easier.

However, the best way to prevent ticks is by wearing an EPA registered insect repellent. For those who want to take it a step further, Green recommends treating clothes with the insecticide Permethrin, which can be put on clothes and, once it dries, is effective for several washings. Permethrin not only repels ticks but stuns them, so they just fall off of clothes.

Tick removal

“There’s all kinds of wives’ tales about tick removal techniques, you know, things like nail polish and petroleum jelly,” Green said. “We do not recommend that at all. Ticks transmit pathogens through their spit. The last thing we want to do is make them angry.”

There are tick removing tools available, or a pair of tweezers can be used to grab the tick by the head as close to the skin as possible, pinch it and gently pull it off, Green said. 
Make sure to remove the entire tick, Cantrell said. Then, once the tick is removed, wash the bite site thoroughly with soap and water.

It does not hurt to save the tick in a Ziploc bag and put it in the freezer. If symptoms start to show up a few days after being bitten, bringing the tick to the doctor can give them a better idea of what types of diseases to test for based on the type of tick.

The IDOH gives out ID cards to help hikers and campers identify different types of ticks. For more information about tick identification and which tick-borne diseases to watch out for, visit the IDOH Tick-Borne Diseases Dashboard.

I got bit, now what?

“If you’re seeing individuals who are having issues with their hearts, one of the things that needs to be on the list of potential diagnoses is Lyme disease and especially this time of year,” Cantrell said.

Lyme disease is an illness caused by bacteria. Ticks contract it from mice and deer and then transmit it to humans via their saliva. Symptoms look a lot like the flu, but the biggest indicator is a rash where the bite occurs.

Unfortunately, many people will not feel symptoms right away as the incubation period is two to three weeks. Things such as weakness, fatigue, malaise and shortness of breath, which can be an indication of heart damage, can show up weeks after being bitten. Very rarely, Lyme disease can also present headaches, stiff neck and tingling in hands and feet.

“You may have been bitten by a tick and not even notice it, but the rash looks like there is red kind of on the outside and clearing in the center,” Cantrell said. “Then what with time, what can typically happen is you’ll start to have fever, you’ll start to have body aches, and you can have joint pain too.”

Treatment for Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses is essential to help prevent any long-term heart damage, joint pain and headaches. Doctors will do a blood test to confirm, then treatment includes an antibiotic, and depending on how severe the case is, the treatment could take anywhere from 2-3 weeks or longer.

Although Lyme disease is the most prevalent of tick-borne illnesses in Indiana — with ehrlichiosis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever close behind — few cases are reported in the Greater Indianapolis area each year, Cantrell said.

Right behind ticks are mosquito-borne illnesses, such as West Nile, Green said. Whether you plan on camping or hiking or just spending time outside this summer, remember to wear sunscreen and bug repellent to avoid getting bitten.

Contact Arts & Culture Reporter Chloe McGowan at 317-762-7848. Follow her on X @chloe_mcgowanxx.