Making The Nature Scene: Tick a look at me now

How to minimize Lyme disease exposure by avoiding, spotting, and removing these easy-to-miss bloodsucking arachnids.
A close-up photo of a tick surrounded by the illustrated frame for "Making the Nature Scene."
Illustrated frame by Maggie Denman. Tick photo by Jim Gathany via Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

How to minimize Lyme disease exposure by avoiding, spotting, and removing these easy-to-miss bloodsucking arachnids.

In Making The Nature Scene, Tone Madison explores the splendor of the outdoors in the Madison area (and beyond), and encourages Madisonians to think more deeply about their natural and built surroundings.

Have you ever scoured your epidermis for sesame or poppy seeds, you delectable little everything bagel? You should after a walk in the woods, because that’s where ticks attack!

Adult blacklegged ticks, a.k.a. deer ticks, are the size of sesame seeds. The nymphal ticks of summer are as miniature as poppy seeds.

“Most people are shocked when they see one and say, ‘Oh my gosh, how would you ever find this?’” says Rebecca Osborn, a vectorborne disease epidemiologist with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. 

Wisco ticks near you are hungry for your blood. They can be tiny vectors of the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, which is no brunch in the park. Short-term Lyme disease symptoms can be treated with oral antibiotics after you notice a red, circular “bullseye” rash and/or develop flu-like symptoms. Left undetected and untreated, Lyme disease can land you with arthritis, meningitis, heart abnormalities, nerve pain, cognitive and neurological issues, and facial palsy. It’s serious stuff, so it’s ultra important to protect yourself, check yourself, and know what to do if you find a tick. 

Fun fact: climate change has played a part in our state’s Lyme disease cases, which have more than doubled over the last 15 years, Osborn says. Wisconsin’s tick season is intense every year—and getting longer as temperatures rise. 

Ticks generally come at ya from the ground, attaching to your flesh or clothes between your toes and knees. Then they inch upward to find a place to sink their insect fangs into you for a blood meal. Not cool! Ticks are cold hardy and bury themselves in fallen leaves when temps fall below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Then they just lay there, like dormant vampires, waiting for it to warm up so they can go on the hunt. June typically has the highest reported cases of Lyme disease in Wisconsin. But don’t get too cocky. Those little creatures are still lurking in tall grasses, leaf litter, and cool wet woodlands. 

“Oftentimes, people stop seeing ticks around this time of the year, and they think it’s safe,” Osborn says. “That ‘Oh, good, the ticks are gone, now we can get back to our summer fun.’” 

Not! So here’s how she suggests you avoid, spot, and detach those pesky bloodsuckers. 

Protect yourself.

  • Use a layered approach of more than one method, like with COVID or birth control.
  • Apply repellents that’ve been studied and are registered with the Environmental Protection Agency. Those include repellents with DEET, picaridin, and lemon eucalyptus oil—all of which have been researched and proven effective as tick repellents. Permethrin can be sprayed on clothes and gear before you wear them—and can last through several washes.
  • Wear long sleeves and pants.
  • Sport the stylish pants-tucked-into socks look practiced by many a dad. 
  • Do like the tick researchers and don rubber boots during summer tramps through the  woodlands.
  • Use a regular tick treatment on pets that spend time outdoors and check them for ticks too. 

Check your body, head (including hair) to toe.

After sauntering through tick zones like wooded areas, it’s a good idea to check for ticks and then shower, so hopefully they’ll be washed away. 

“You might even think [a tick is] a fleck of dirt. Spend some time carefully looking and feeling,” Osborn says. “I often feel with my hands too for sort of strange bumps that weren’t there before to really find ticks.”

Ticks like to hide out in earlobes, inside ears, the back of your neck and head, armpits, and backs of knees. “Any sort of dark hidden places. They love the waistband area and groin, certainly,” Osborn says. 

What to do if you find a tick

Don’t freak out! Finding a tick doesn’t mean you have Lyme disease. Still, you want to remove the tick as quickly as possible. Don’t waste time with folk medicine hacks like applying nail polish or peppermint oil to the tick so it will detach itself. “That’s not an effective approach, because you’re just allowing it more time to pass and potential transmission can occur,” Osborn says. 

Grip the body of the tick with a pair of tweezers and gently pull the tick from your skin.

If the tick’s mouth stays attached to your skin, don’t worry. Your skin might get red and inflamed, like it would when you have a splinter. And just like a splinter situation, your skin will push it out. “It’s really not significant,” Osborn says. 

Nonetheless, it’s a good idea to contact your doctor soon after you find a tick so they can assess if testing and treatment are necessary. And if you’re having any flu-like symptoms or a growing bullseye rash, let your doctor know because you may have missed a tiny tick, Osborn says. The sooner you get testing and treatment, the more likely you are to evade the long-term effects of Lyme disease.

Overall, you can avoid the miniscule bloodsuckers by keeping to the dry, hot, open spots that ticks avoid. Otherwise, tuck your pants in your socks on your next hike and be on the lookout for stray pieces of everything bagel seasoning dusting your skin.

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