Spring is here and the weather is warming up. If you’re thinking of working in the yard or taking a hike, you might be wondering whether you need to worry about protecting yourself against ticks so early in the season.
The short answer? Yes, Bruce Noden, Ph.D., a medical and veterinary entomologist and an assistant professor in the department of entomology and plant pathology at Oklahoma State University, tells Consumer Reports.
Whether you live in the Northeast or Midwest (where black-legged ticks, which transmit Lyme disease, are a prime concern) or farther south (where Lone Star ticks and American dog ticks might be more common), you need to start worrying about ticks in March and April, Noden says.
Here, what you need to know about your risk of encountering a tick right now.
What happens to ticks in winter and spring?
During the winter, the cold doesn't kill off ticks en masse.
Some of the ticks we usually think of as most dangerous to humans in the U.S., including American dog ticks (which transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever and tularemia) and Lone Star ticks (which transmit ehrlichiosis and other infections and can trigger a red-meat allergy in humans), enter a period of dormancy during the winter.
Others, including deer ticks (or black-legged ticks)—which transmit Lyme disease, Powassan virus, and several other infections—can become active and resume hunting for a blood meal even during the winter, whenever the temperature is above freezing and the ground isn’t covered in snow.
Throughout March and April, the longer periods of daylight signal that it’s time for dormant adult ticks to start feeding again. Warmer temperatures and thawing snow mean more adult deer ticks will be out and about as well.
In May, tick nymphs emerge, joining the adults to make it the tickiest month of the year, says Thomas Mather, Ph.D., who directs the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Vector-Borne Disease. May through August is generally peak season for catching Lyme disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Patterns of tick behavior can also vary depending on where you live and which tick species live in your area. For instance, Gulf Coast ticks, which can be found along the Gulf and southern Atlantic coastlines and in Oklahoma and Arkansas, can become active as early as February. Pacific Coast ticks (found mainly in California and northern Mexico) are active throughout the winter. Your local health department can be a good source of information about the ticks most active in your area.
What does all this variability in tick behavior mean for you?
Although the risk of encountering a tick rises as the bugs become active, humans also increase their activity starting in the spring, making it more likely that they’ll put themselves in the path of a tick, says Justin Talley, Ph.D., a professor and an extension livestock entomologist in the department of entomology and plant pathology at Oklahoma State. You may have kept to the indoors during winter, but once you head out to run, hike, hunt, garden, and more, he says, “when your activity patterns pick up, be aware that you could find a tick on you.”
The bottom line: Tick season is now, and it’s time to protect yourself.
How to protect yourself against ticks
You should use some form of protection against ticks whenever you’re out in a wooded or grassy area where ticks could lurk. These are key strategies:
Use clothing treated with pesticide. It’s not as scary as it sounds. Permethrin-treated clothing is safe and can kill or disable ticks that come in contact with it. You can purchase pretreated clothing or you can buy permethrin spray and apply it to your clothes. You can even use it to spray your shoes and socks. Just be aware that it can’t be applied directly to your skin, so you should use insect repellent on any exposed skin.
Use an effective insect repellent. CR currently tests insect repellents against mosquitoes, but our experts say that data have shown that a repellent that works well against mosquitoes will also likely work well against ticks. Our tests show that repellents with 15 to 30 percent deet, 30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus, or 20 percent picaridin tend to be most effective. Check the label of a repellent before you buy, though, because not all mosquito repellents are also labeled for protection against ticks. You can apply insect repellent to any exposed skin, as well as to the outside of your clothing.
Protect pets, too. Use an EPA-registered or FDA-approved anti-tick product on your pets, if they need them. Talk with your vet about which products are effective and safe.
Dress right. It’s best to wear long pants and long sleeves when you go into an area that’s likely a tick habitat. You should also tuck your pants into your socks to keep ticks from getting under your clothing. Wearing light colors can also help you spot any ticks that may have hitched a ride.
Check for ticks regularly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends taking a shower and checking your body for ticks within a couple hours of being in a tick-heavy area. Showering can wash away any ticks that may be on your skin but not yet attached, and it’s an opportunity to check your skin for any bites. Remember that nymphal black-legged ticks are tiny—no bigger than a poppy seed, says Mather. So you need to keep a sharp eye out for these little bugs.
Handle a tick bite right. If you find one of these pests attached to you, remove it with tweezers. And don’t panic, because getting bitten by a tick doesn't guarantee you’ll contract an infection. The risk is actually low, even if the tick is carrying something potentially harmful.
You can save the tick for a few weeks, just in case, by taping it to a notecard and writing down the date you found it. That way, if you do get sick, your doctor can have it tested and use the result to help diagnose you. (Don’t handle a tick with your bare fingers, though—infectious pathogens can reach you from the tick even through small breaks in your skin.)
If you find a tick—attached or not—and are curious about what kind it is, several free services can help you identify the species from a photograph. Mather at the University of Rhode Island runs one of these services, called TickSpotters. The University of Wisconsin at Madison also runs the photograph-based Tick Identification Service for residents of Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.