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How to protect yourself from tick diseases

A poster shows how to correctly remove a tick. An illustrated hand grasps a set of tweezers. Below it, text reads: "Things NOT to do. DO NOT twist, poke, squash or burn the tick. DO NOT smother the tick with any substance. The tweezers are grasping an illustrated tick's head, with an arrow at the back of the tick pointing up, indicating to pull the tick directly up, away from the skin.
Rebecca Thiele
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IPB News
A poster at Purdue University shows how to correctly remove a tick.

You might be a little worried about tick diseases after reading our story on the problems with data and diagnosis. The good news is, preventing tick bites is relatively simple.

Remember, even in the winter, you can still find a tick on you. If you’re going into the woods, tall grass, your garden, or anywhere else ticks might be — here are some tips on how to keep yourself safe:

Wear light-colored clothing 

Ticks are often brown or black. If you wear white or lighter colors like pastels and neons, it will be easier to spot them and brush them off before they can attach.

Tuck your pants into your socks and wear close-toed shoes

This keeps ticks from attaching to your foot or crawling up your pants leg. Ticks that crawl on the outside of your pants are easier to see and get rid of.

Use the right bug spray

Catherine Hill, Purdue University entomology professor, said to use an Environmental Protection Agency-approved bug repellant — preferably one that has at least 20-30 percent DEET. The EPA has a searchable database of approved bug sprays here. Hill said bug spray with DEET needs to be reapplied every two hours.

You can also pre-treat your clothing, boots and camping gear with products that have 0.5 percent permethrin. Make sure to read the directions on the product carefully. Some brands sell clothing and gear that’s already been treated with permethrin.

Be thorough about your tick checks  

When you come back inside, check your body for ticks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention especially recommend checking hard-to-see places like: under your arms, in and around your ears, inside your belly button, the back of your knees, your scalp, between your legs, and around your waist. Nymphal-stage ticks can be particularly small — so make sure you are extra thorough in the spring and fall. Showering within two hours of being outside is a great way to do a tick check. It can also help wash off unattached ticks.

Don’t forget to check your clothing, gear and your pets too. Clothing can be washed and dried on high heat to kill ticks.

If you find a tick, remove it safely

The key is to remove the tick without having it regurgitate its stomach contents into your skin — which increases your risk of an infection. Putting nail polish or petroleum jelly on a tick or burning it with a match could all make that more likely — so don’t do it.

To remove a tick safely, the CDC said to use fine-tip tweezers to grasp the head of the tick as close to the surface of your skin as you can. Pull upward, but don’t jerk or twist the tick. You can dispose of it in rubbing alcohol, a sealed plastic bag, tape, or just flush it down the toilet. Make sure to clean the area where the tick was — and your hands — afterward.

You can choose to send your tick to a lab for testing, but Indiana University tick researchers have said these tests can be unreliable and don’t recommend it. Officials with the Indiana Department of Health said you’ll also likely experience symptoms before you get the results back. Some tick diseases can be deadly in a matter of days — so it’s best not to wait for a test before seeking treatment.

Contact reporter Rebecca Thiele at rthiele@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

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Rebecca Thiele covers statewide environment and energy issues.