Ticks are small parasitic organisms that feed on the blood of humans and animals. They live in wooded, brushy areas and fields with high grass. Ticks grab onto humans or animals as they brush up against vegetation. Once on a host, ticks crawl into hair, clothing, and exposed skin. They then attach to the skin and begin feeding.
Ticks pose a danger because they can transmit serious diseases like Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ehrlichiosis, tularemia, and others. Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne illness, with over 30,000 cases reported each year in the United States.
Finding and removing ticks quickly is important to prevent transmission of disease. Ticks must be attached for 36-48 hours before they can transmit Lyme disease bacteria, for example. Checking for ticks after being outdoors, especially in tick habitat like woods, grassy fields, and brush, can allow you to find and remove ticks before disease transmission occurs.
This article provides tips on the best ways to check for ticks after outdoor exposure. It is especially important to thoroughly examine your hair and scalp to find any ticks that may be hidden in your hair.
Carefully examine your hair, scalp, and head
The head, hair, and scalp are common tick attachment sites. Ticks can crawl into hair and may go unnoticed if you do not carefully check this area of the body. After being outdoors in tick habitat like woods, grassy fields, and brush, follow these tips to thoroughly check your hair and scalp for ticks:
- Use a fine-toothed comb or your fingers to slowly and carefully go through your hair. Check the entire scalp and over the ears where ticks also frequently hide.
- Check from different angles. Look through your hair from the front, sides, and back to get the best view of the entire scalp.
- Have a partner check your head if available. They may be able to spot ticks more easily than you can on your own head.
- Use a magnifying mirror to closely examine your scalp and hair partings for small ticks.
- Run your fingers over the entire scalp and through your hair feeling for any bumps or raised areas on the skin that could be an attached tick.
- Pay extra attention to the hairline at the back of the neck and behind the ears where ticks commonly latch on.
- Make sure to check near the top and bottom of the hair shaft since ticks can attach anywhere in the hair.
Checking hair with a comb is one of the most effective methods. The fine-toothed comb can catch ticks and drag them out of hair so they can be spotted and removed.
You may need to dampen or wash hair first if there are styling products in your hair that decrease your ability to feel ticks and see your scalp. Pulling hair up or back into a ponytail can also help provide greater visibility to the head and neck areas.
Children should have their hair checked by an adult. Ticks are very small, usually between the size of a poppy seed and a sesame seed in their immature stages. Young ticks can easily hide in a child’s hair unnoticed.
Use a mirror to view other tick attachment sites
In addition to the hair and scalp, ticks often attach in hard to see places like behind the knees, behind the ears, the groin, armpits, and along the waistline. Using a full length mirror, carefully examine all areas of the body, especially at skin creases and folds. Parents should thoroughly check children, who may have trouble spotting and removing ticks themselves.
Ask a partner to help check your back
Have a partner inspect areas you cannot easily see yourself like your back and back of legs. Ticks often climb onto shoes or pant legs while walking through vegetation then crawl up under clothing looking for an attachment site. A partner can part your hair, lift clothing, and closely look over all areas of the back of the body.
Shower soon after being outdoors
Showering after coming indoors from a tick infested area is an important tick prevention step. Ticks often need hours to find an ideal attachment location like the scalp or behind the knee. Showering can wash away unattached ticks lingering on your body before they have time to bite. Make sure to check for ticks even after a shower since any that were already attached will remain on your body.
Wash clothing in hot water
Wash clothing worn outdoors as soon as possible using hot water. Ticks can remain alive on clothing then crawl onto your body later. Run wet clothing through a hot dryer cycle for an hour to kill any remaining ticks.
Cut your hair short
Keep hair relatively short if spending a lot of time outdoors in tick areas. Short hair makes ticks easier to spot and remove versus long hair where ticks can hide undetected. At a minimum avoid excessively long styles that extend past the collar and tie hair up when outdoors.
Use tick repellent
Use an EPA approved tick repellent like those containing DEET, picaridin, IR3535, or oil of lemon eucalyptus while outdoors. Follow instructions to apply onto exposed skin and outer clothing. Permethrin can also be used on clothing, shoes, tents, and camping gear. The repellent creates a hostile chemical environment making it harder for ticks to remain on treated surfaces.
Wear light colored clothing
Wear light colored long pants and long sleeves so ticks crawling on clothing are easier to spot before they attach to skin. Tuck pants into socks and shirt into pants to keep ticks on the outer clothing layer. This will also help you spot ticks during clothing checks.
Avoid tick habitat
When possible, avoid wooded and bushy areas with high grass and leaf litter. Walk in the center of trails avoiding tall grass and brush. Keeping dogs on trails and using tick prevention for pets also helps lower exposure. Ticks wait with front legs outstretched along branches and leaves trying to latch onto passing hosts. Staying out of tick territory lowers the need to check for ticks.
Remove an attached tick properly
If you do find a tick attached to your scalp or anywhere else on the body, remove it right away. Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick close to the skin and pull straight up gently and steadily. Avoid twisting or jerking motions that may break the tick and leave the head embedded. After removal, wash the area with soap and water and apply antiseptic. Never crush or puncture ticks with your fingers.
Here is a table summarizing tips for tick checks and prevention:
|Tick Check Tips||Tick Prevention Tips|
|Carefully comb through hair and check entire scalp||Use EPA approved tick repellents|
|Inspect behind ears, hairline, and neck||Wear light colored long pants and sleeves|
|Use a mirror to view all areas of the body||Tuck in clothing into socks and pants|
|Shower after being outdoors||Avoid wooded and bushy areas|
|Have a partner check your back||Keep dogs on trails and use tick prevention on pets|
|Wash clothes in hot water and dry on hot cycle||Cut hair short if spending a lot of time outdoors|
Ticks transmit many serious illnesses, so it is critical to find and remove them quickly after potential exposure. Carefully checking your hair, scalp, and entire body after being in tick areas gives you the best chance of locating ticks before they can transmit disease. Showering after coming inside, using repellents, and avoiding tick habitat can also protect you from tick bites and tick-borne diseases. Make thorough tick checks after outdoor activities a regular habit, especially during warmer months when ticks are most active. With vigilance, you can help make sure no ticks go unseen and unremoved from your hair and body.