Is It a Bad Year for Ticks? It Depends on Where You Live

A photo taken in a forested area with a sign on a tree, a yellow triangle warning sign with an image of a tick on it.

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Key Takeaways

  • While you might be seeing more dog ticks, it's shaping up to be an average year for most other types of ticks.
  • Not every tick carries and transmits tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease.
  • Your risk of getting a disease-spreading tick bite depends on the type of tick. Your risk also varies depending on where you live.

Every spring and summer, people throughout the United States start to theorize whether the year will bring a particularly bad tick season.

“I get asked that all the time,” Thomas Mather, PhD, a professor of public health entomology at the University of Rhode Island, tells Verywell. He's also the director of the university's TickEncounter Resource Center.

Mather says that when people ask if the tick season seems worse in a given year, he responds by asking which tick the person is talking about and where they are located.

“Right now, we are seeing a banner year for dog ticks all through the country,” Mather says. The presence of black-legged ticks (deer ticks or Ixodes scapularis)—the ones that carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease and other pathogens—has already begun ramping up for the year.

However, Mather notes deer ticks are no worse than usual this year—though steady numbers aren't necessarily good news. “Normal is bad," Mather says. "Normal translates into 406,000 news cases of Lyme disease every year.”

How Risk Varies By Tick

Several species of ticks can spread diseases to humans, but Mather says that not all ticks carry and transmit the same diseases.

Tick Disease Risks

Different types of ticks can carry and spread different tick-borne illnesses. One tick that gets a lot of attention—and worry—is the black-legged tick. Mather says that:

  • Only about 25% of black-legged ticks carry Borrelia burgdorferi—the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. On the West Coast, about 5% of the western black-legged tick carry Lyme disease.
  • About 5% to 8% of black-legged ticks can transmit anaplasmosis.
  • About 5% to 10% of black-legged ticks can transmit babesiosis.

Risk by Region

The risk of contracting a tick-borne disease depends on the region in the U.S. where a person lives or happens to be spending time outside. According to Mather, even when a tick species moves into new regions, its behavior changes in ways that may limit disease transmission.

For example, in the South, the black-legged tick lives deep in the leaf litter on the forest floor, so it's less likely to climb onto shoes or clothing of human hikers.

According to Mather, the lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum)—named for the white spot on its back—has spread through the southern Midwest and up into Rhode Island and Massachusetts. A bite from the lone star tick can not only transmit several diseases but has also been linked to the development of a severe allergy to red meat. 

Overall, Mather says that climate change plays a small role in how ticks are spreading through the country. But more importantly, the expanding population of white-tailed deer—the primary hosts for ticks—remains one of the major driving forces. White-tailed deer are widespread in the U.S. and are even being found in areas adjacent to urban settings.

What This Means For You

Tick season is ramping up in the U.S., but there are steps that you can take to keep your family (and your pets) safe from tick-borne illnesses, such as using tick repellent, staying out of long grass, checking yourself regularly, and knowing what to do if you find a tick on you. For more information about which ticks are common in your area or what diseases they can transmit, you can check out the University of Rhode Island's TickEncounter site.

How to Protect Yourself From Ticks

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you don’t have to go out into the woods to pick up a tick. Spending time in your own yard can bring you into close contact with them. In general, ticks live in grassy, brushy, or wooded areas. You can also come into contact with them from your pets.

Tick Prevention

The best way to avoid any tick-borne illness is to prevent them from getting on you. There are a few steps that you can take to keep yourself, and your pets, safe:

  • Use tick repellent. Before you spend time hiking, walking, mowing the lawn, or gardening, spray your clothing with products containing 0.5% permethrin.
  • Dress for protection. If you'll be spending time outside, especially in wooded areas or places where there is tall grass, wear clothes that cover your arms and legs well. It also helps to pull your socks over your pant legs to keep ticks from going down into your shoes. You can also use permethrin on your clothes or even purchase apparel that comes pretreated.
  • Keep your yard tidy. While you might not be able to avoid long grass and overgrown areas in nature parks or on a hiking trail, you can make your own backyard less appealing to ticks by keeping it mowed and removing any debris, like leaves, trash, and old furniture, that they like to live in.
  • Regular tick checks for you and your family members. After you've been outside, even just in the yard, check yourself for ticks. Look carefully in spots that you might not typically examine, such as under your arms, in and around your ears, around your hairline, around your waist, and between your legs. It's also helpful to take a shower after you get in from gardening or a hike.
  • Check your pets. Pets can take flea and tick preventive medications, but these treatments aren't always foolproof. When you're out with your pets, try to keep them out of grassy or wooded areas. If you are on trails, keep them in the center or on parts that are mowed. Check your pets for ticks after a walk or even just a romp in the yard. You can use a tick comb to help look through thick coats.

What to Do If You Find a Tick

While you might be tempted to immediately yank a tick off your skin, be deliberate about removing it. For best removal, the CDC recommends:

  • Using fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible
  • Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don’t twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouth to break off and remain in the skin
  • After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water

Once you've removed the tick, you can usually get a better look at it and figure out what kind of tick it is. However, depending on its stage of development, it can be tricky to identify it correctly.

If you aren't sure, your state's public health department, local universities, and healthcare facilities often provide tick identification services. The TickEncounter site also allows you to submit a photo of a tick for identification. If you find a tick on yourself or a family member, identifying what kind it is can help determine your risk of contracting an illness.

Mather says that while most people worry that every tick will give them Lyme disease, most of the ticks found from May through early summer are American dog ticks (Dermacentor variabilis)—which do not transmit Lyme disease. 

“I’m trying to get people to ‘know your tick, know your disease,'" Mather says.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Regions where ticks live.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Alpha-gal syndrome.

  3. University of Rhode Island. TickEncounter.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing ticks in the yard.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ticks.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Avoiding ticks.

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing ticks on your pets.

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tick removal.

  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How ticks spread disease.

By Valerie DeBenedette
Valerie DeBenedette has over 30 years' experience writing about health and medicine. She is the former managing editor of Drug Topics magazine.