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Protect Yourself from Ticks While Outdoors


We need to talk. It’s going to be awkward, it’s a subject we’d all like to avoid, but it’s best for everyone if we just put it out there: ticks are all around you.

Ticks are an uncomfortable truth in Illinois, with a variety of species found in every county throughout the state. In southern Illinois, the lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum) is much more common than in the northern part of the state, though we do have it here. The females are easily identified by the single white spot in the center of their body (hence their name). The American dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis), sometimes called the wood tick, is one of the most common species throughout Illinois and found in a variety of habitats, including trail edges, grassy fields, and woodland borders. In our part of the state, one of the most abundant species and the tick we’re most concerned with is the black-legged tick (Ixodes scapularis), sometimes called the deer tick. This species lives in woodlands and is of great concern because it carries Lyme disease.

black-legged-tick-Scott Bauer-USDA

Black-legged tick by Scott Bauer USDA

Black-legged ticks don’t jump or fly, and definitely don’t fall from trees. They crawl — really slowly — and always start low on the body (ankle to knee height) in search of a good spot to feed. In their earliest life stage in spring and summer, the larvae are looking for a small host, something like a small bird or mouse. They feed, molt into a nymph, and then go dormant for the rest of the year. In their second year, these nymphs become active in spring, searching for their next meal. This can be raccoons, deer, dogs, and sometimes humans.

This is why we’re at the greatest risk in spring: not because the nymphs have higher rates of infection or are more prone to bite than in other life stages, but because they’re so small they often escape detection. It usually takes 24 – 48 hours after they bite to start feeding (and possibly transmitting disease), so the longer they stay on, the more likely they are to begin feeding and pass on any diseases they’re carrying. After the nymphs feed, they molt into adults. The female adults will need to take one more blood meal in summer, fall, or even spring of their third year.


American dog tick ©Gary Alpert via Wikimedia Commons

Best Defense is a Good Offense

Thankfully, there are some simple, common-sense steps you can take to protect yourself from tick bites throughout the year. First, avoid woodlands in spring, when the nymphs of black-legged ticks are out feeding. If you do go into areas that may have ticks, wear light-colored clothing so you can easily spot ticks on your clothes. Also, tuck your pants into your socks, and your shirt into your pants to keep ticks from moving from your clothes to your body. To keep ticks from climbing onto your clothes, walk in the middle of paths and avoid brushing against vegetation. It also helps to apply insect repellent containing 20 – 30% DEET to your clothing to keep ticks away.


Lone-star tick by Katja Schulz via Wikimedia Commons 

When you get home, put your clothes in the dryer on high heat for 30+ minutes to kill any ticks. But the most important thing you can do to prevent tick bites is also the easiest: check yourself thoroughly every time you go outside in potential tick habitat. Early detection is key to avoiding tick bites and removing attached ticks before disease transmission.

Sometimes, even if you take these precautions, you may find an attached tick. If you do have to remove a tick, there’s a simple way to do so:

● Don’t burn it, smother it, or put oil on it. These won’t kill the tick, but may force it to burrow in deeper.

● Grasp the tick as close as possible to your skin using a pair of forceps or tweezers.

● Slowly but firmly pull the tick straight out, don’t twist or yank it out. This will make sure you don’t break it and leave the mouthparts still attached.

● Once it’s out, clean the area and your hands thoroughly.

After removal, the most important thing to do is monitor the site. It takes 3 – 30 days before Lyme disease symptoms start showing. Symptoms include general fever-like symptoms as well as a distinct bulls-eye rash. If you have any of these symptoms or any other concerns, call your physician.

So remember, even though they’re all around us, with just a few simple precautions you can protect yourself from those pesky ticks and enjoy a wonderful Illinois summer!

For more information about ticks, please visit our website.



Andres Ortega

Photo of blog author Andres Ortega
Andres Ortega is an ecologist in the Natural Resources department at the District. He has a B.S. and M.S. in biology, both from Northern Illinois University. As the District's invertebrate ecologist, he works to protect and restore beneficial insect populations in DuPage County, and control those that are threats to human or environmental health. At home he likes to share his love of insects with his two sons by searching for butterflies and dragonflies on hikes in the local nature preserves.

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