The Importance of Tick Checks in Winter: Why You Should Stay Vigilant

The Importance of Tick Checks in Winter: Why You Should Stay Vigilant
13.01.2024
  • While ticks are usually dormant in the winter, it’s important to know that cold weather doesn’t kill them.
  • Global warming means tick activity is starting to stretch into the winter months.
  • Not all ticks carry diseases like Lyme. If you see a tick on your body, take a picture. That will help you identify both its species and determine the stage of its lifecycle, which matters if you’ve been bitten.

When you come in from the cold this time of year, stomping snow off your boots and warming up cold hands are probably the first things you do. But what about a tick check?

If you assume the chilly temps make ticks settle in for a long winter’s nap until spring, experts have some surprising news for you. Here’s what you need to know.

Do Ticks Come Out in the Winter?

“It’s important to not forget about ticks because even though it’s December or we’re getting right in the midst of winter, ticks can still be active; they’re not killed off by cold temperatures,” Patrick (PJ) Liesch, MS, extension entomologist and director of the Insect Diagnostic Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Verywell. 

Here’s a fun fact about ticks: They’re ectothermic, which means their bodies can’t generate heat internally. Instead, they need to use external sources like the outdoor temperature to regulate their body temperature.

While it’s true that ticks are usually dormant and inactive in winter, if the temperature outside gets warm enough, “we can see tick activity this time of the year,” said Liesch. 

There’s already proof of this. As of December 7, 2023, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has documented 2,706 cases of Lyme disease—a record number so far this year.

Experts think warmer weather is the blame for the uptick (no pun intended). According to Climate Central, a nonpartisan research and communications group, average winter temperatures in the United States have increased by 3.3 degrees since 1970.

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Which Ticks Spread Lyme Disease? 

There are approximately 850 tick species around the world, 90 of which can be found in the U.S.,4 Thomas Mather, PhD, a professor of public health entomology at the University of Rhode Island (URI) and director of the URI’s TickEncounter Resource Center, told Verywell.

But you can’t lump all ticks together—each state is home to different tick species, and not all ticks carry disease.

“When we think about Lyme disease, there’s one kind of tick really that carries the Lyme disease germ,” Mather said. “There are a couple of species of them in the United States, the black-legged tick in the Eastern U.S. and the Western black-legged tick on the Western side of the country.” 

What to Do If a Tick Bites You

If you do get bitten by a tick, these are the steps experts say to take next.

Remove the Tick

Liesch recommends doing a body scan for ticks as soon as possible after you’ve been outside—even in the winter.

“It could be right after you come in or later that day if you’re taking a bath or a shower but thoroughly looking over yourself or your kids or other family members for ticks,” he said.

If you find a tick on you, Liesch and Mather recommend using forceps or tweezers to remove it. Use the tool to grab the tick as close to your skin as possible, and do a slow and steady pull.

“We want to minimize any sort of traumatic disturbance to the tick, such as crushing or squishing it,” said Liesch. Ticks carry pathogens in their salivary glands, so causing trauma to the body can actually force fluids into your skin.

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Figure Out What Kind It Is—And Take Pictures

You might just want to throw the tick out, but first, you need to identify what species it is and take a picture of it.

Ticks can vary in size depending on where they are in their life cycle. For example, in the unfed or nymph stage, female deer ticks can be as small as poppy seed. But by the seventh day after feeding, a tick’s body balloons, appearing much larger.

The length of time a tick has been attached to you matters. Mather said that adult-stage ticks usually feed on a host for five to seven days and can start transmitting disease after the first day of being attached.

“If they’re attached for less than that, they probably can transmit some bacteria, but it’s usually not enough to cause an infection,” he said.

The little ones aren’t necessarily less of a risk. Ticks in the poppy-seed-sized nymph stage are responsible for transmitting Lyme disease, as well as babesiosis and anaplasmosis.

Free Tick IDing

Can’t figure out what species of tick bit you? Check out TickEncounter, a University of Rhode Island program that provides accurate and timely tick identification information and risk assessments.

You can submit a photo to TickEncounter and tick experts will ID the tick for free, give you a risk assessment, and tell you what to do next. They usually get back to you within 24 hours. 

Watch for Symptoms

How long it takes to have signs and symptoms of a tick-borne illness depends on the disease, so you’ll want to monitor yourself if you’ve had a tick bite recently. That includes looking for rashes (including the classic “bulls-eye” rash associated with Lyme), fever, muscle and joint aches, and headaches. However, keep in mind that signs and symptoms of tickborne illness can show up weeks or even months after a bite.

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Some tick-borne illnesses can become very serious and even life-threatening. If you start having symptoms like weakness, paralysis, confusion, and a stiff neck, get emergency medical care (even if you don’t know if you’ve had a tick bite recently).

You should call your provider if you think the tick bite could be infected, you have flu-like symptoms that don’t seem to be getting better, or you’re experiencing fevers that seem to come and go.

How to Protect Yourself Against Ticks Year-Round

Maine’s CDC recommends taking the following steps to protect yourself from ticks:

  • Know tick habitats and take precautions when you’re in areas where they live.
  • Wear light-colored clothing that covers your arms and legs, tuck long-sleeve shirts into your pants, and your pants into your socks.
  • Use an EPA-approved repellent like DEET and picaridin.
  • Check yourself and others in your home for ticks daily, including your pets.
  • Remove clothing when you come in the house and put it directly into the dryer before washing it on high heat to kill any ticks you may have brought in. 

These precautions are standard and can be applied to precautions for all states, but Mather recommends a more tailored approach depending on the stage and season.

Since adult-stage ticks are more likely to latch around the knee or thighs, he recommends tucking in shirts to prevent ticks from crawling up and under your clothes.

“But in the spring and summer, when the nymphal stage ticks are around, I make sure that my pants are tucked into socks because they’re gonna crawl and latch on at the shoe level and crawl up underneath my pants,” he added.

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