What to Know About Ticks and Winter

tick on a dry branch
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  • Beginner

Depending on where you live, ticks can be a significant problem. Although ticks live in almost every climate, they're more active in some areas than others. While some tick bites cause few issues, others can lead to serious illness and even death. That’s a lot of power for such a small creature.

1. Ticks Spread Disease

One of the biggest concerns when it comes to ticks is that they spread disease, not only to animals but to humans too. The most common illness is called Lyme disease and many people have also heard of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Certain ticks are capable of carrying certain diseases, but they can also carry and transfer several diseases at the same time. There are thousands of species of ticks and some of them don’t carry disease at all.

2. Ticks Aren’t Insects

The little buggers may remind you of some familiar insects, but ticks are actually part of the arachnid clan so they’re more closely related to spiders. The good news is this means they don’t fly or jump. However, they’re very efficient at using those legs to increase mobility.

3. How to Scan and Identify

tweezers reaching for tick on skin

Ticks can be extremely small, especially the nymphs. They can look like a large pepper flake or be quite large like a small fly. The key to finding ticks is to look often. Anytime you return home from time outdoors, scan your skin. Be sure to check your scalp, behind your ears, in your armpits, and between your legs.

Ticks like to target warm and discreet areas so get help from a spouse or friend or use a mirror for hard-to-see areas. If you’re spending all day outdoors for camping or work, check every few hours instead of waiting until you get home.

4. Proper Removal

Ticks will head straight for a blood source, burrowing their heads beneath the skin in order to tap a blood vessel. Once it starts feeding, a tick will stay in place for days, literally gorging itself on the buffet.

Once you identify a tick, remove it as soon as possible. The longer a tick is in place, the more likely you are to acquire an illness. The Center Disease Control says if you remove a tick within the first 36-48 hours you may escape the disease transmission.

Remove the tick with the aid of tweezers with a sharp point. Gently squeeze the tick where it comes into contact with the skin and pull using firm and consistent pressure. If part of the tick is left behind, watch for it to work its way out in the next few days—like a sliver buried beneath the skin.

5. Watch for Symptoms

tick bite on a child's leg

If you’ve seen a tick burrowing into the skin, watch for signs of illness within a few days to a few weeks. Sometimes you may not even know you had a tick so if you develop symptoms of fever, headache, fatigue, muscle aches, and a spotted or bullseye rash, talk to your doctor. In the case of Lyme disease, not everyone gets, or notices, the telltale bullseye rash, but the arthritic feeling and other sudden symptoms such as meningitis or encephalitis can be a result of a bite.

Most people who pick up a tick don’t actually get sick. However, if you pull out a tick that’s engorged from feeding on your blood, take it to a lab to see if it's carrying a disease.

6. Winter Risks

Ticks are more active during the summer months. It’s also when humans are more active in the outdoors and are more likely to encounter them. However, there really is no off-season for ticks. They’re around, clinging to grass and plants throughout the seasons. Your pets can pick them up and the ticks can burrow in them or they can transfer to you. Deer ticks are particularly resilient, even during the winter months, especially before temperatures drop below freezing.

During the winter you’re also likely to be wearing more protective clothing. Regardless of what season you're outdoors, if you’re in a natural area there is likely some risk of ticks. Protect your skin with boots. Tuck pant legs into your boots and wear a long-sleeve shirt. For added and effective protection apply an insect repellent. Those with at least 20% DEET are the most effective.