Looking for Primary Care services? Schedule online with an Iowa Clinic provider.

Skip to Main Content

7 Ways to Arm Yourself Against Ticks and Lyme Disease

Ticks carry an inflammatory illness that can cause arthritis, neurological disorders and heart disorders. Protect yourself this tick season with these prevention tips.

A small tick on a leaf near a human fingerCentral Iowa isn’t a hotbed for Lyme disease, one of the most common tick-borne illnesses. The majority of the nearly 30,000 annual cases are found in the northeastern United States and upper Midwest.

But public health officials have encouraged caution and promoted prevention in recent years as cases of Lyme disease rise across the state. In 2017, the 255 reported cases in Iowa were nearly four times the numbers seen as recently as 2010. And those are only the cases recorded by the Iowa Department of Public Health. Many people are bitten by ticks and contract Lyme disease but never report symptoms.

A couple hundred cases in a state of 3 million people don’t sound like much to worry about. Still, when not detected and treated early, the unpleasant symptoms of Lyme disease can last for years.

A rash from the tick bite is the most common sign of Lyme disease.

Not everyone experiences the same symptoms. But most people infected with Lyme disease experience a rash a few days to a month after being bitten by a disease-carrying tick.

The redness of the rash expands over several days and begins to resemble a bull’s eye — a red center surrounded by a red ring. Several bull’s eyes may appear after three to five weeks without treatment, indicating that the infection has spread into the bloodstream.

Other Lyme Disease Symptoms

Rashes only appear in 60 to 80 percent of Lyme disease cases. Without a rash or the knowledge that you’ve been bitten by a tick, it can be difficult to make the connection when you show these other symptoms:

  • Mild eye infections
  • Paralysis of your facial muscles (Bell's palsy)
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Abnormal heart rhythm

Symptoms of Lyme disease tend to resolve on their own. But they can last for several years. In that time, new symptoms can emerge:

  • Recurrent arthritis, particularly in your knees and shoulders
  • Impaired mood, sleep or memory
  • Pain or tingling in your arms or legs
  • Meningitis and encephalitis

Prevent tick bites to avoid getting Lyme disease.

There were only 14 reported cases of Lyme disease in Polk County in 2016. And only one kind of tick, the deer tick, carries the bacteria that causes the infection. While you’re more likely to encounter a disease-carrying deer tick if you venture into the northeastern or eastern part of the state, deer ticks are found in every county, according to the Iowa Tick Surveillance Program established by Iowa State University.

So as you venture outdoors to enjoy the warm weather or take a trip northeast where Lyme disease is more prevalent, take these precautions to prevent tick bites.

1. Keep ticks out of your yard.

Ticks thrive in tall grasses and moist environments. Make sure your yard isn’t inviting them in. Cut your grass short, remove leaf litter and brush, store woodpiles off the ground and clean up the ground around bird feeders. Ticks also don’t like sunshine. Prune your trees and low-lying bushes to keep your lawn sunny.

2. Know your tick species.

There are more than a dozen species of ticks in Iowa. You only need to worry about the deer tick, or black-legged tick. Deer ticks are quite small and can look like new "freckles" when attached to your skin.

Deer ticks are also more abundant in oak forests. Oak trees are native to Iowa. You may have some in your yard. There are many oak forests in central Iowa that you may want to avoid in tick season or stick to paths and trails on hikes:

  • Brown’s Woods in West Des Moines
  • Jester Park near Granger
  • Yellow Banks Park southeast of Des Moines
  • Pammel State Park in Winterset

3. Dress to deter deer ticks.

When you’re enjoying the outdoors in an area where you suspect deer ticks, wear the appropriate clothing so less of your skin is exposed. Dress in long-sleeved shirts and pants. Tuck your pants into high socks or boots. Wear insect repellents containing DEET to make your skin less appetizing to ticks.

4. Check your family for ticks.

After you’ve been outside or on a hike, check yourself and your family for ticks. Remember, they have the appearance of a new freckle, so take a close look at the skin. Ticks can latch on anywhere on the skin, but most often attach to your thighs, arms, underarms and legs. Be sure to check through hair and clothing as well.

5. Check your pets too.

Pets often bring ticks indoors — even if they have been treated with a flea and tick preventative. Ticks can jump off your pet and onto your furnishings — or you. Keep your pets out of areas with high grasses, if you can. And always check them for ticks after they've been in grassy or wooded areas.

6. Take extra precautions in tick season.

Ticks are most likely to spread Lyme disease before they reach adulthood — when they’re smaller nymphs. Nymphs seek a host to prey on each spring, from April to June. As they mature toward the end of the summer, they are less likely to spread disease. They go inactive in the winter months.

7. Remove ticks quickly and safely.

If you spot a tick, don’t freak out! To spread disease, it must remain attached to your skin at least 24 to 48 hours. You can remove the tick before it does any damage.

There’s only one good way to do so. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends you simply reach for the tweezers and follow these steps:

  • Carefully grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible.
  • Pull it straight out, being careful to not squeeze the tick's body.
  • Clean the wound and apply an antiseptic to the bite.
  • Wash your hands and avoid touching the tick with your bare hands.

Burning the tick with a match, covering it with petroleum jelly or nail polish and other folk remedies you may have heard of don’t work. Not only are these methods ineffective, but they can also force the tick to regurgitate its gut contents, which increases the risk that it will transmit disease. It’s safer to stick to the tweezers.

If the tick burrows deeper or has been on your skin for longer than 48 hours — it may look swollen with blood — call your primary care provider immediately. Your provider can remove the tick safely, check for infection and provide quick antibiotic treatment if Lyme disease is suspected.

Back to top