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High Tick Season Is Upon Us, So Keep Critters Off Of You

An adult deer tick, <em>Ixodes scapularis, </em>which is the kind that spreads Lyme disease in the Eastern U.S.
Scott Bauer
An adult deer tick, Ixodes scapularis, which is the kind that spreads Lyme disease in the Eastern U.S.

It's tick season out there people, so be careful.

A friend's discovery of an unwanted hitchhiker while hiking led to a game of name-that-tick on Twitter over the weekend. The critter was dispatched with the help of a little suntan lotion to loosen its grip, and nobody except the tick seems the worse for wear.

But the incident served as a reminder, to me anyway, that you need to be ready if you're spending much time on the trail or even the backyard these days.

In the U.S., Lyme disease, named for a small town near the Connecticut coast, has become the most commonly reported illness transmitted by bugs, such as ticks, mosquitoes and fleas. There were more than 38,000 cases of Lyme disease (confirmed and probable) in 2009, according to an analysis published by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention in May.

July is usually the peak month for Lyme disease. Cases this year are down a lot, with about 6,700 reported through the beginning of July. By comparison, last year there were nearly 14,000 cases over the same period.

This year there was a big drop in New England — especially Massachusetts — and in some Midwestern states, including Wisconsin. Health officials in Massachusetts noted a big drop in 2010, too, which they attributed to hot, dry weather. The balmy summer was inhospitable for ticks and also discouraged people from spending as much time outside.

But don't count on the tick holiday lasting. "We do not unfortunately, at this point, expect that this is the beginning of a trend of decreasing cases," a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health wrote in an email to Shots.

To cut your risks, the CDC recommends wearing bug repellent containing lots of DEET and proper clothing. After you've been outdoors check yourself and your family for ticks and get rid of those you find right away.

The best way to dispose of ticks is by grabbing them with tweezers. Forget trying to get them to drop off, using petroleum jelly, nail polish or any other goop. "Your goal, the CDC writes, "is to remove the tick as quickly as possible — not waiting for it to detach."

Update:Check out the University of Rhode Island's , which has tips for keeping ticks off and identifying those that latch on. And in case you're wondering about the signs and symptoms of Lyme disease, there's a helpful overview from the CDC here.

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Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.