This spring is seeing a “tick explosion” in Michigan, causing alarm for many who spend time outdoors.
Some, but not all, species of ticks that live in Michigan can harbor dangerous bacteria, viruses and parasites. The blacklegged tick, also called the deer tick, is perhaps the most well known, because it can carry Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease.
Decades ago, ticks weren’t very prevalent in Michigan, and they were mostly found in parts of the western U.P. But in recent years they’ve been expanding their range across the state, and bringing with them an increase in the number of Lyme disease cases reported in Michigan each year.
As instances of ticks and tick-borne illness increase across the state, experts are stressing the importance of taking preventative measures when it comes to spending time in areas where ticks may be found. It’s also helpful to know what to do if you or someone you know gets bitten by a tick.
Read on for a list of tips from the Centers of Disease Control, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and Jean Tsao, an associate professor at Michigan State University who researches ticks and tick-borne illness.
Be extra vigilant in warmer months. Ticks are most active from April through September, though blacklegged ticks can be active any time there are multiple days in a row above 32 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the MDHHS, Michigan’s peak Lyme disease transmission season occurs in June.
Use insect repellent, and/or treat your clothing and gear. To deter ticks, the Centers for Disease Control recommends using Environmental Protection Agency-registered insect repellents, as well as products containing permethrin, which can be used to treat boots, clothing, backpacks and other gear. As an alternative, permethrin pre-treated clothes are available through various retailers. An EPA guide to repellents can be found here. Always follow the instructions for each repellent.
Wear light-colored clothing, and cover up. If you are headed into a “ticky” area, cover up as much as you can: Wear long sleeves and pants, and tuck your pant legs into your socks to keep ticks outside your clothes. Wearing lighter clothing makes it easier to find a tick that is crawling on you.
Don’t stray from trails. Avoid meandering off trails, and especially try not to tromp through areas of tall grass, dense brush, or leaf litter. Stick to the middle of trails whenever possible. If you must step to the side of a trail, avoid brushing up against tall grass, brush, and fallen leaves.
Do a “tick check” after every outdoor outing. Before returning indoors or getting into your car, check over your clothing, shoes and bags or other gear for ticks, which can attach to something like a backpack before attempting to latch onto your skin. Check children and pets for ticks, too. Look carefully: Adult-stage blacklegged ticks are sesame-seed sized, while nymph-stage blacklegged ticks, which are more likely to carry the Lyme disease-causing bacteria, are the size of a poppy seed. (A viral CDC Tweet from 2018 shows just how small they can be.)
Shower within two hours after coming inside. An attached tick can hang on even through a shower, so before you hop under the water, check for ticks literally all over your skin — under the arms, around the groin area, behind the knees, around the waist, in and around the ears, even in your hair and on your scalp. As an extra precaution, you may put your outdoor clothing in a dryer for 10 minutes on high heat, which will kill any ticks attached.
Know your ticks. Arm yourself with knowledge by familiarizing yourself with Michigan’s most prevalent ticks and the diseases they may carry in this guide from MDHHS. The Tick Encounter website and The Tick App are also great resources for tick identification and information on tick-borne illnesses.
What to do if you are bitten by a tick: Remove the tick gently with fine-tipped tweezers, pulling the tick straight out without squeezing or twisting. If possible, snap a photo and save the tick in a Ziplock bag or lidded container, which can be helpful for ID purposes if you develop any symptoms of a tick-borne illness. Wash and disinfect the bite site, your hands, and your tweezers. Use an app like Tick Encounter to identify the species of tick, as different ticks carry different pathogens (and some carry none at all).
Should you call your doctor? Some organizations, like the CDC, recommend a watch-and-wait approach, saying you should contact a physician if symptoms like a rash or fever develop within several weeks of removing a tick. Others, like the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Educational Foundation, recommend discussing immediate preventative treatment with a physician if you are bitten by a black-legged tick, even if the tick has been attached for less than 24 hours.
Become a citizen scientist. Researchers at Michigan State University, Columbia University and the University of Wisconsin recently developed “The Tick App,” which is part guide, part behavioral study meant to track periods of tick activity and identify areas with high tick risk. Users can opt out of the study if they choose, but still may use the app to identify different kinds of ticks, report ticks, and learn ways to prevent tick exposure.
For more on ticks and tick-borne disease, visit the CDC, MDHHS, the Michigan Lyme Disease Association and the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Educational Foundation.