How to Protect Yourself from Ticks

Learn about where ticks lives and how to protect yourself from them.

Ticks are common parasites that suck the blood of their hosts—which often end up being our pets and ourselves. Ticks are found all over the world, and about 90 species of ticks exist in the United States. Eighty species are in the family "Ixodidae" (or hard ticks) and 10 species are in the family "Argasidae" (or soft ticks). Nearly every tick encountered by humans is an adult hard tick. Fortunately, only a small number of hard tick species can transmit pathogens that cause disease and pose significant danger to pets and humans. Understanding where to find ticks and the danger they may present can help you protect yourself and your pets.

What Do Ticks Look Like?

Ticks are arachnids and are closely related to mites, spiders, and scorpions. They appear flat and oval in shape. Ticks do not have antennae or wings. However, ticks do have a Haller's organ located on their first pair of legs which detects temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide. This organ helps them locate a suitable host, and they are the only animals that have this organ.

Adult ticks that have not yet begun to feed might be the size of an apple seed. After they've taken a blood meal, they appear rounded and plump. Tick larvae are typically the size of sand grains, while nymphs might appear about the size of a poppy seed. Ticks have a six-legged larval stage and one or more eight-legged nymphal stages. The adult is also eight-legged. Ticks require a blood meal to advance from one life stage to the next. Most ticks have a three-host life cycle (one host for each life stage), meaning they will feed, drop off, and then attach to another host.

For more information on the different types of ticks read Types of Ticks: Identify and Control Ticks.

A tick on a white background

Where Do Ticks Live?

Ticks are widely distributed throughout the United States. Which species you may encounter depends on your geographic location. Ticks are typically found outdoors in humid wooded or grassy areas, where they can attach to their host and begin to feed. They are often found on the edges of landscapes so that they can easily move from their resting place to a passing host. After attaching to a host and ingesting a blood meal, the tick will detach and molt. If the tick is an adult female, she will lay eggs.

It is important to note that ticks do not live indoors in most cases—only the brown dog tick can complete its life cycle indoors. Other species prefer to lay their eggs near the ground in wooded or grassy areas.

For more information visit The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention - Geographic distribution of ticks that bite humans. 

When Is Tick Season?

Ticks are usually most active from early spring to early fall. However, some species, like deer ticks, become active whenever temperatures rise above 32 °F. Therefore, while you should be vigilant during spring, summer, and fall, you should not discount the threat that ticks pose even in winter. Moreover, if winter in your area is especially mild, you should not assume that tick season has actually come to an end.

What Dangers Can Ticks Pose to Humans?

Not every tick bite will result in pathogen transmission, but it is still best to be vigilant and take proper precautions to avoid the risk of contracting an infection.

A tick on a person's hand

Ticks can transmit multiple pathogens that cause diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Lyme disease, babesiosis, tularemia, and others. When pathogens are not transmitted, a tick bite may still become inflamed, swollen, or irritated. In fact, bites may lead to rashes, burning sensations, or painful blisters. Some tick bites may also cause flu-type symptoms. If you experience any of these symptoms following a tick bite, visit your healthcare provider immediately for evaluation and treatment.

Ticks may transmit a pathogen to their hosts when they burrow their mouthparts into the skin, and are left for multiple hours/days to feed. This is why it is so important to detect ticks early--pathogen transmission only occurs after a prolonged period of time. The longer a tick is left to feed, the more likely they are to transmit a pathogen to the host. Because tick bites are not painful, inspection is the best way to detect the presence of ticks on your body.

Can Tick Bites Be Prevented?

If you are hiking or walking through wooded landscapes or tall grasses, it might not be possible to avoid being bitten, but you can drastically reduce your risks by wearing long sleeves and pants. If the area is known to be infested with these pests, you might take the extra step of tucking your pants into long socks and spraying yourself with an EPA-approved personal repellent labeled for ticks and designed specially for humans.

If you live in a rural area, particularly one that's known to be at high risk for ticks, you should mow your lawn regularly, as ticks prefer to hide in tall grasses. Eliminate leaf piles and other debris where ticks could hide. If you have kids, keep their toys or play equipment in a sunny spot, since ticks prefer the shade. If you live next to a wooded area, consider adding a gravel border between the woods and your home. You can even incorporate plants into your landscape that naturally deter ticks, like lavender, sage, beautyberry, and mint. Finally, consider keeping chicken, as they're voracious tick eaters!

You can kill ticks by treating your landscape with Ortho® BugClear™ Insect Killer for Lawns & Landscapes Ready-to-Spray, which provides 3 months of protection against the American dog tick. Another option would be to treat your lawn with Ortho® BugClear™ Lawn Insect Killer1 Granules to kill ticks and protect against American dog ticks and brown dog ticks for up to 3 months.

Inspect For Ticks

Each time you venture into an area where ticks are likely to be present, you should perform a careful inspection of your pet and yourself as soon as you return home (ideally, before you even enter your home). This is important to do even if you've used a repellent and dressed accordingly.

If a Tick Is Attached, What Should You Do?

If you discover a tick on yourself, a family member, or a pet, don't panic. The key is to deal with the pest right away, but with care. Do not light the tick with a match (an old-fashioned method for killing ticks), squeeze its body, smother it with a substance like petroleum jelly, pierce it with a sharp object, or hand-remove it with your fingers. Instead, use a pair of tweezers to extract the tick from the skin. You want to grasp the tick's head, or as close to it as possible, and pull steadily outward from the skin. Try not to squeeze and rupture the tick's body, as its fluids could leak onto the bite area. After removing the tick, flush it down the toilet and treat the bite area with antiseptic. Contact your doctor or veterinarian if you need help removing a tick. Additionally, if you would like to determine whether or not the tick was infected with a pathogen, consider mailing the specimen into a designated laboratory for testing. (Note: these tests may cost a small fee.)

Ticks are a nuisance, but you don't have to avoid the outdoors. Just remember to take precautions to deal with them. Keep these tips in mind in order to guard against tick and tick bites.