As one of the nation’s leading tick experts, Dr. Thomas Mather, of the University of Rhode Island’s Tick Encounter Resource Center, and the Equip-4-Ticks Resource Center is a leading authority on tick ecology, tick control strategies, tick-bite protection, and tick-borne disease prevention.
With practical tips and critical tick information, think of Dr. Thomas Mather as your go-to “tick guy,” who can help us stay protected.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background? How did you become one of the nation’s leading experts on ticks?
I joined the University of Rhode Island in 1992, coming from the Harvard School of Public Health, and now serve as director of URI’s Center for Vector-Borne Disease and its TickEncounter Resource Center. My research focuses on tick ecology, area-wide tick control strategies, tick-bite protection, and tick-borne disease prevention. My research and outreach programs are diverse, including anti-tick vaccine discovery projects, evaluations of targeted tick control strategies, tick-borne disease risk prediction, as well as the development of tick-bite protection decision support tools and social networking strategies for tick-borne disease prevention. My work has attracted funding from a wide variety of sources, including the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the US Department of Agriculture, the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the US Agency for International Development. Most recently, I have helped launch the Equip-4-Ticks Resource Center in an effort to help inform the public about best practices for tick protection.
What kind of diseases do ticks transmit?
Ticks can transmit the germs causing Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses including Babesiosis, Anaplasmosis, Ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Powassan, as well as other harmful germs and allergens such as Alpha-gal syndrome.
What are the signs and symptoms of Lyme Disease?
Caused by a spirally shaped bacterium transmitted from tick to host, Lyme disease can cause various symptoms and serious side effects, including neurological and heart complications.
The most common first symptoms of Lyme disease include:
- A rash
- Joint aches
Do all types of ticks carry Lyme Disease germs?
No, not all types of ticks carry the Lyme Disease germ, but black-legged ticks and western black-legged ticks do. Want to learn more about different ticks, where they can be found, and what diseases they may carry? Find out here.
“The next time you step outside and head to your favorite place to take a walk if it happens to be in tick habitat, here are some things to think about…”
– Dr. Thomas Mather, Tick Expert, University of Rhode Island Tick Encounter Resource Center
What are some tips to help prevent tick bites?
1. Walk down the center of the trail
Ticks are usually more abundant on the edges of trails, so walking down the center can help you avoid ticks that are waiting to jump onto the nearest host. It’s also important to understand that the simple act of stepping off the trail to let someone by can increase your risk of a tick encounter.
2. Tuck in your clothes–ideally, tick repellent clothes
Ticks will attach anywhere on your shoes or clothing and then crawl onto your skin. Wearing permethrin-treated clothing is the easiest way to keep ticks from latching on and crawling up, but whether you are wearing repellent clothes or not, Dr. Mather recommends tucking your shirt into your pants and your pants into your socks.
3. Remove your clothes after being in the tick habitat and put them in the dryer
Putting your clothing in the dryer after being out in a tick habitat can help remove ticks that may be hiding.
4. Do a thorough tick check
It’s important to do a thorough tick check on yourself, your kids, and your pets after being in tick habitat, especially in areas where your clothing binds against your skin, such as your underarms. Learn more about Tick Checks at the Equip-4-Ticks resource center.
Where do most people encounter ticks and get bitten?
Today, ticks can be found in all 50 states and around the world. The three most common ticks in North America are:
- Blacklegged (Deer) Tick (Ixodes scapularis)
- American Dog Tick (Dermacentor variabilis)
- Lone Star Tick (Ambylomma americanum)
Blacklegged (aka. deer ticks) usually are not out in the middle of your yard. They thrive where yards border wooded areas, in ornamental plantings, and gardens where there are leaves and higher humidity. American dog ticks don’t mind sunny areas or even a patio or deck. Lone star ticks tend to wander from shade to sun and back, especially when potential hosts are present.
Ticks are usually more abundant on the edges of trails, so walking down the center can help you avoid ticks waiting to jump onto the nearest host. It’s also important to understand that the simple act of stepping off the trail to let someone by can increase your risk of a tick encounter. At home, there are many ways to eliminate tick habitats and discourage wildlife that ticks host on.
By trimming shrubs and low branches, as well as raking and removing leaves, you can remove conditions that allow ticks to survive in your yard. Also, adult ticks can be brought to your yard by deer and the resulting offspring larvae may become infected by feeding on mice, chipmunks, and birds. Keep deer out by installing a deer fence, planting deer-resistant plants, or applying deer repellents.
How can people do a thorough tick check and when should it be done?
Perform tick checks from the ground up! After spending time in tick habitat, it’s important to do a thorough tick check. While many recommend checking from head to toe, I recommend checking from the lower part of your body first and then moving up, because that’s how ticks move, from the ground up.
Places to check for ticks
- Between toes
- Behind knees
- In the groin area
- Around waistline
- In the belly button
- Inside elbow joints and armpits
- In and around the ear
- Around the hairline
- On the scalp
It’s especially important to check areas where your clothing meets, or binds closely to, your skin. Ticks will crawl to those areas and won’t be able to, or want to, go any further, and they’ll bite there.
Don’t forget your pets! Once you’ve finished doing a tick check on yourself, it’s also important to perform a tick check on your pet. On a pet, the head region is the most important place to look for ticks. Ticks will also end up on other areas of dogs, or cats. Make sure to check all places where a tick could get caught up in its fur or the crease of its skin.
Places to check your pet for ticks
- Paws and between toes
- Between back legs
- Between front legs
- Under the collar area
- In or around the ears
- Head region
- Base of the tail
What should people do if they find a tick on them?
Finding a tick on yourself, your family member, or your pet can be scary. While it’s vital to remove a tick as soon as possible, it is also important to ensure that you do it properly and that you take the right steps once it’s removed. This includes storing the tick and sending it in for testing in case it is carrying a dangerous tick-borne disease like Lyme.
1. Remove the tick
The best strategy for removing a tick is by using pointy tweezers like the ones from TickEase. By having something with a very pointy tip, you are able to get as close to the skin as possible and pull the tick out without squeezing the back part of the tick where the germs are.
How to remove a tick:
- Get as close to the skin as possible with the pointy tweezers
- Hold tick firmly
- Pull straight up in a slow, steady motion
2. Keep the tick in a plastic bag
After removing the tick, don’t throw it away. Instead, place it in a Ziploc bag. Most people don’t know or are uncertain about what type of tick they’ve encountered, and if you don’t know, you won’t know what kind of diseases it may be carrying.
3. Identify the tick
It’s easy to confirm the tick ID–take a clear photo of the top side of the tick, and send it to TickSpotters, who can identify it for you within 24 hours and provide the following information:
- The type and life stage of the tick
- How long it was attached
- And what kind(s) of germ(s) it might have, or definitely didn’t, transmit to you
4. Send the tick in for testing
After the tick has been identified and TickSpotters has let you know if the tick that bit you has a high chance of transmitting disease-causing germs, you can choose to send the tick to a testing facility.
It should be noted that while tick testing can be a helpful resource, it should not be used as a substitute for physician diagnosis of disease.
Tick Testing Services Recommended by TickEncounter:
What are the best repellents?
Because of its long-lasting nature, I recommend wearing permethrin-treated clothing to help repel tick bites. When clothes are treated with permethrin, ticks may grab on, but after a few seconds of exposure, they generally fall off. You can build a whole wardrobe of insect repellent clothing for all of your various outdoor activities; purchase clothes already treated, spray your own clothing and gear with permethrin spray, or send in your clothes using the Insect Shield Your Clothes program, and they will treat them for you.
Top Benefits of Permethrin-treated Clothing:
- Don’t have to reapply it every time you step outside
Includes still images of Dr. Mather in the lab and tick checks images.