Health officials in recent years have tried to increase public awareness of the serious diseases carried by ticks. But the tiny insect is usually the last thing you're thinking about when you're preparing for a hike, camping trip or picnic.
That lack of awareness can be dangerous, especially in areas of the country that are infested with ticks.
"There are areas in this part of the country that the tick exposure can truly be massive," said Michael Dryden, a professor at Kansas State University and one of the world's foremost experts on the pest. "You can walk into areas and literally encounter dozens or hundreds of ticks.”
Reducing the risk
No one is suggesting you stay inside this summer but Dryden says a few precautions can dramatically reduce your risk of a tick bite. First and foremost, try to avoid areas known to be heavily infested.
Your state agriculture extension office is likely to have this information. Otherwise, consider that ticks love areas with a heavy tree canopy with good vegetation, some type of water source, adequate humidity and wildlife, particularly whitetail deer and turkeys.
Any time you are outdoors in the summer and fall use insect repellent. Dryden suggests it will be most effective sprayed on the inside of your pant legs, on your socks, ankles and shoes. Then, roll your pant legs into your socks to reduce the amount of exposed skin. Also, conduct a daily inspection to make sure you are carrying no ticks.
"Sometimes that's the best thing we can do is to inspect ourselves because many of these diseases take a day or longer after the ticks attach to be transmitted," Dryden said.
Don't forget gear and pets
And don't just examine yourself and your children. Examine both gear that has been exposed to the outdoors and pets. Ticks can ride into the home on clothing and pets, then attach to a person later, so carefully examine pets, coats, and day packs.
Remember that you can attract ticks anywhere outdoors – even walking through a field of tall grass.
"Many people believe that ticks fall out of trees," he said. "They do not do that. What happens is these ticks get on us and they crawl upward until they hit bare skin. The back of the neck is often the first bare skin they find, which leads people to believe they dropped down."
Use the right repellent
The kind of tick repellent you use will also make a difference in your level of protection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends products containing 20% to 30% DEET on exposed skin and clothing. It should provide several hours of protection.
For clothing, use products that contain Permethrin. You should treat clothing and gear, such as boots, pants, socks and tents with products containing 0.5% permethrin. It remains protective through several washings. Pre-treated clothing is available and may be protective longer.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has an online tool to help you find the right commercial repellent for your particular need.
What if you find a tick on your body that appears to be feasting on your blood? Don't panic.
The recommended removal technique, according to the CDC is to use fine-tipped tweezers to grab the tick as close to the skin as possible. Next, pull it out with a steady motion.
Once the tick has been removed, clean the skin with soap and water. The tick is probably still alive so dispose of it by placing it in alcohol or flushing it down the toilet.