It’s finally summer in the Pacific Northwest. A time for hiking, camping, outdoor play and ticks.
(We’ll pause here for a collective ew.)
We totally hear you. The mini-vampires make our skin crawl, too. But there are ways to prevent ticks from making a meal out of you. And there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of getting an infection or illness if you do get bitten.
What is a tick bite?
Ticks are small, spider-like parasites found in wooded and grassy areas and leaf piles. They feed by biting and attaching themselves to humans and animals and can take days to get their fill of blood.
While the majority of tick bites are harmless and don’t need medical treatment, some ticks can transmit bacteria that cause illnesses. Tick bites can also prompt an allergic reaction in some people.
Tick bites are common across the U.S. It’s estimated that millions of Americans are bitten by these tiny terrors each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) there are more than 50,000 reported cases of disease caused by tick bites annually.
Compared with other parts of the U.S., ticks and tickborne diseases aren’t very widespread in our neck of the woods. But there’s still a risk, especially during warmer summer months.
What are the symptoms of a tick bite?
Most tick bites are painless and cause only minor irritation. That’s good news and bad news. If a tick attaches itself to your skin, you may not notice it.
Typical symptoms of a tick bite may include:
- A small hard bump or sore
If a tick is infected, you may have flu-like symptoms, such as:
- Body aches
- Fever and chills
- Fatigue or weakness
- Itchiness or irritation
- Skin rash
If you are allergic to tick bites, you may experience:
- Pain, swelling or a burning sensation at the bite site
- Shortness of breath (if you have a severe allergy)
What diseases do ticks carry?
The most common ticks in this region are the black-legged tick, Rocky Mountain wood tick and western dog tick. While these guys are not highly likely to be infected, there’s still a risk of tick-borne disease.
Some of the more commonly transmitted diseases are:
- Rocky Mountain spotted fever
- Tickborne relapsing fever
- Tick paralysis
Lyme disease can also be transmitted by ticks. While it’s the most reported tickborne disease in the United States, the inflammatory condition is most common in the northeast and upper mid-west states. Of the very few cases reported each year in Washington state, most are the result of tick bites that occur outside of the state.
So, if you’re traveling elsewhere this summer and plan to be in the great outdoors, you’ll want to be aware of the risks and protect yourself from exposure.
The Washington State Department of Health is a great resource for information about ticks and tickborne diseases specific to our area. If you’d like to learn more, including tick hot spots across the U.S., the CDC offers way more info than you’d ever like to know.
How can I prevent tick bites?
The best way to protect yourself and others against tick bites is to reduce your exposure to the little critters.
Here are a few tips:
- Cover up when hiking or exploring the great outdoors. It’s not necessary to purchase a TickSuit (yes, that’s a thing), but pants, long-sleeved shirts and a hat offer good protection. You can also treat boots, clothing and gear with products containing 0.5% permethrin, or purchase permethrin-treated clothing and other products.
- Use an EPA-registered insect repellent. The EPA offers a handy repellant search tool to help you find a product that best suits your needs.
- Avoid contact. Try to sidestep wooded and brushy areas with high grass and leaf accumulation. Walk in the center of trails to limit exposure.
- Examine clothes, gear and pets. Even when you’re covered, ticks can catch a ride and attach to the skin later. Check what you’re wearing and carrying (or have someone check for you) and be sure to give your car interior a once-over when you get home. Wash and dry clothes on high heat settings to kill any ticks you may have missed.
- Shower as soon as possible. Showering within two hours of heading indoors can help wash off unattached ticks and reduce your risk of getting a tickborne disease from attached ticked.
- Do a full-body check. Ticks gravitate to warm, moist or hair-covered areas, so carefully check spots most prone to bites, including:
- Scalp area
- Skin behind the ears and between fingers and toes
- Belly button
- Groin area
If you see a tick just crawling on your skin, it’s not spreading germs. But, that little critter could be a sign there are other ticks afoot. That’s why a careful tick check is so important.
- If you find an embedded tick, remove it as soon as possible. They may be small, but ticks have a big appetite and can remain securely attached for days. It typically takes 24-48 hours of feeding before ticks can transmit infections. Prompt removal is critical.
How do you remove a tick?
You can remove the tick yourself with clean, fine-tipped tweezers. Follow these steps:
- Use tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible.
- Pull straight up and away from the skin applying steady, even pressure. Don’t twist, bend or jerk the tick.
- Check the bite site carefully to ensure all parts of the tick are removed.
- After removing the tick, clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.
- Submerge the tick in rubbing alcohol to make sure it’s dead.
If you would like to bring the tick to your health care provider for identification, place it in a sealed container and make a note of the date and location of the bite. If you’d rather flush the sucker down the toilet, take a photo first.
When should I seek medical attention for a tick bite?
If you have questions or concerns about a tick bite, tick removal or a tickborne illness, the friendly providers at Indigo Health are here for you. With more than 35 clinics across Washington and 24/7 online care, we’ve got you covered.
If you’ve been bitten and suspect you have been infected, it’s important to get the bite site checked out and start any necessary treatment right away. You should seek medical care if you:
- Think a tick has been attached to you for several hours or a day.
- Are unable to completely remove the tick.
- Have a rash that gets larger.
- Develop flu-like symptoms.
- Have pain or blistering.
- Believe you were bitten by a deer tick. You may need antibiotics.
If it isn’t convenient to come to one of our locations, you can connect with an Indigo Online Care provider within minutes from wherever you are. Meet face-to-face or set up a Chat Visit and send a picture. Either way, you’ll receive a prompt diagnosis and treatment plan.
Some people have more serious reactions to tick bites. It’s a good idea to call 911 or head to the nearest ER if you develop:
- A severe headache
- Difficulty breathing
- Heart palpitations