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How to Keep Ticks Away and Remove Those Disease-carrying Bugs

Image of How to Keep Ticks Away and Remove Those Disease-carrying Bugs. Members of Fort Knox, Kentucky, Public Health Activity and Environmental Health Services collected ticks from harvested deer in October 2021. These collected ticks offer insight into the species of ticks and the pathogens of tick-borne illness those ticks may be carrying that are present on the installation and surrounding areas. (Photo: Sara Morris, Fort Knox)

As we change seasons, ticks are out there waiting to feed on you, bug experts say.

“There is not truly a season when ticks are completely inactive for most of the world,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. David Sanders, an entomologist and chief of the research division at the Armed Forces Pest Management Board.

Ticks can attach to any part of the human body but are often found in hard-to-see areas such as the groin, armpits, and scalp.

However, “ticks will situate themselves anywhere on the body,” said U.S. Army Capt. David Denlinger, a Defense Health Agency entomologist.

Military field exercises and deployments put active duty service members at higher risk for tick-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and a host of others.

Being outdoors with your family also puts them at risk, too.

Lyme Disease

Lyme disease is the most common vector-transmitted disease in the United States, along with Rocky Mountain spotted fever, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most humans are infected with Lyme disease when immature ticks, called nymphs, bite them, according to the CDC. Nymphs are tiny (about the size of a poppy seed) and difficult to see; they feed during the spring and summer months.

In most cases, the infected tick must be attached to a human for 36 to 48 hours or more before the Lyme disease bacterium can be transmitted.

Adult ticks can also transmit Lyme disease bacteria, but they are much larger and people who are bitten are more likely to discover and remove the ticks before they have had time to transmit the bacteria, CDC said.

Sanders, the Air Force entomologist, said black-legged ticks infected with the Lyme disease-causing microbe thrive in below-freezing weather and can be active even in winter.

Protecting Yourself from Tick Bites

Sanders’ suggestions for tick checks include:

  • Use double-sided tape to catch ticks on your uniform or clothes, except where there is a heavy underlying layer of vegetation or humidity that lessens the tape’s stickiness.
  • Self-check or buddy check after leaving the affected area. This is the best fail-safe strategy.
  • Re-treat footwear with a pyrethroid spray product every time before you go outside.
  • Check yourself in front of a mirror after being outdoors or take a shower as soon as feasibly possible.
  • Keep moving along trails, and don’t take long pauses, either seated or standing, so ticks don’t have the opportunity to attach to you.

Department of Defense tick safety directives include:

  • Wear permethrin-treated uniforms.
  • Use a DOD-approved tick repellent on your exposed skin.
  • Look frequently for freckles or small specks of moving dirt that may be ticks.
  • Tuck pants into your boots and button your sleeves down fully.
  • Remove ticks promptly to lessen the chances of them rupturing and having infected fluid come in contact with a bite.
  • Report tick bites immediately to a health care provider.
  • Save ticks for identification if possible.

The DOD’s MilTICK program is a free testing and identification service for ticks removed from DOD personnel and their dependents. The Defense Centers for Public Health Center-Aberdeen provides the service.

How to Remove Ticks

Tweezers or the pliers’ portion of a multitool are the most effective way to remove ticks, Sanders said.

“It is vital that the tick body is not squeezed,” he said. “The tick needs to be grasped by its head and mouthparts as close to the skin as possible.”

Pull the tick backward and away from the skin. Do not use nail polish, nail polish remover, other chemicals, or a lighted match to try to get a tick to back out, Denlinger said. It is largely believed that flames will make the tick regurgitate and spread the pathogen.

The exception is soft ticks, Sanders said. Barrier treatments and tick repellents, in addition to personal protection are the methods of choice.

“Soft ticks are rapid feeders in comparison to hard ticks, and the pathogens for which they are vectors have transmission cycles evolved to complement the soft tick’s rapid feeding,” he explained.

The same tick-checking advice goes for your family and your pets after outings year-round, and around the world.

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