Expert tips on avoiding tick bites and illnesses this summer

CHICAGO — Tick populations are on the rise during what officials describe as a particularly active tick season in Illinois, so it shouldn't be a surprise that experts are seeing an increase in cases of tickborne illnesses in the area.

Combine that with news stories about tick bites possibly being behind the death of a 2-year-old from (rare) Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and a viral video of a 3-year-old struggling to stand, and many parents are particularly concerned about keeping their kids safe as they head outside this summer.

Here are some basic facts about ticks, tips on avoiding tick bites, and what to do if you suspect you or a family member may have been bitten.

Basic things to know

Ticks eat the blood of mammals, birds, reptiles, or amphibians to survive, and since they can't fly, they wait for a person or animal to walk by before climbing onto them. They're found mostly in wooded areas, tall grasses and weeds. But they're not just a concern for those out on a hike, and can be found in backyards, under leaves, or near structures where rodents and small mammals are active. In fact, 75%  of people get bit on their own property, especially in homes near wooded areas.

A bite from a tick can cause mild to severe illness, and different species of ticks are carriers of certain illnesses. In the Midwest, black-legged deer ticks are the main concern, and they can transmit many diseases, but Lyme disease is by far the most common. Peak season for Lyme disease is June, July and August.

If you do spot a tick, there's no need to panic. People get bit by ticks all the time. It can also take a full day or even 36 hours before they burrow into your skin and begin sucking blood, so promptly removing them can prevent this.

Insofar as those viral stories mentioned earlier are concerned, the diseases behind them are relatively uncommon in the Midwest. Most cases of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever occur in the southeastern U.S., including the Appalachians, Carolinas and Georgia. And Lone Star ticks, which went viral when scientists said their bites may cause allergies to red meat, prefer the southeastern U.S., although they have been spotted in the Midwest.

(The CDC has a map of where tick species can be found)

Tips for avoiding (and dealing with) tick bites

Here are some ways to avoid tick bites and the potential illnesses that come with them, courtesy of experts and local health agencies:

  • At home, keep the area clear of tick-friendly environments by clearing tall grasses and brush,  keeping grass mowed and weeds under control, and removing leaf litter.
  • When headed outdoors, wear white or light-colored protective clothing (to make it easier to spot ticks), including some kind of head covering, and a long-sleeved shirt and long pants tucked into your socks or boots.
  • Permethrin can be used to treat clothing, outerwear and gear, and stays in the fabric for four to six weeks.
  • Apply insect repellent containing 20 percent or more DEET to your clothes and exposed skin, except your face and hands.
  • Walk in the center of trails so leaf litter, tall grass, shrubs, and weeds do not brush on you.
  • Check the skin and clothing of yourself, children, other family members, and pets for ticks every two to three hours or after returning from outdoors.
  • Ticks prefer warm parts of the body like the groin, armpits and scalp, but are also often found behind the ears, behind the knees, and around the waist. Pay particular attention to checking your hair for ticks headed towards the scalp.
  • Bathe or shower as soon as possible to wash off and more easily find ticks that are crawling on you.
  • Remove any tick promptly by grasping it wash tweezers and gently but firmly pulling it out.
  • If the tick bit you, don't just flush it away - save it if you can. A doctor may want to send it off to a lab for identification.
  • Wash hands and tick bite site with soap and water.

When should I go to the doctor?

Tick bites are generally painless but do cause itching, so it may not be necessary to visit a doctor. However, early detection is key in dealing with tickborne illnesses, so you should keep an eye out for other symptoms. The most common ones usually occur within two weeks of a tick bite, and include fever, chills, aches and pains, and a "bull's eye" rash around the bite. But symptoms can take days, weeks or even several weeks to manifest. If you do see a doctor, be sure to tell them where you were when you were bitten.

Symptoms of Lyme disease, which is the most common tickborne illness in the Midwest, include fever, headache, fatigue and the bulls-eye rash. If left untreated, infection can spread to joints, the heart and the nervous system.

Still, while the wide range of illnesses caused by ticks can be concerning, experts agree that staying inside isn't the answer. It's better to head out, armed with knowledge of how to prevent tick bites - and maybe some bug spray for good measure.

*Tips and information courtesy of Illinois Department of Public Health, DuPage County Health Department, and the Centers for Disease Control