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July is peak tick season. Here's what to look out for

Spoiler alert: it's not a bulls-eye rash, according to the director of the Johns Hopkins Lyme Disease Research Center.

WASHINGTON — As we count down the seconds to the start of the holiday weekend, there's something besides cook out logistics to keep in mind: ticks. 

Tick season typically runs from May through August, according to Dr. John Aucott, director of the Johns Hopkins Lyme Disease Research Center. 

This season's tick activity will peak right around July 4, when many people will be spending time outside, Aucott said.

But here's the kicker: ticks are even more active than usual this year, according to Aucott. The Q&A team sat down with him to find out how you can protect yourself and signs to look out for.

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Q: What factors determine the tick population each year? 

Dr. Aucott: "It can vary tremendously over different geographic regions because it depends on the rainfall, the temperature, how much people are outdoors...And it depends on the prior year's crop of ticks, which also has different determinants."

The bacteria that cause Lyme disease actually come from mice, Aucott said.

When ticks feed on mice they can become infected with those bacteria and transmit them to a person when they latch on. 

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Q: If you live in a city do you even need to worry about ticks?

Dr. Aucott: "You absolutely need to be careful about ticks no matter where you live. You know, the regional parks like Rock Creek Park in DC is a perfect habitat for transmission of Lyme disease."

Mice and deer are both common in parks and forests throughout the DC area, which makes these places a prime location to get a tick bite.

But it's not just parks that are risky.

"Most Lyme disease is actually transmitted in your own backyard because of gardening and the edge of your yard, clearing brush," Aucott said.

"If you see deer in your neighborhood, you probably have Lyme disease in your neighborhood."

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Q: How can you protect yourself?

Dr. Aucott: "When you're gardening or hiking you should wear long pants. Consider treating your clothing with repellents like permethrin. Do tick checks after you come in from the outdoors."

You should also pay attention to any red lesions on your body, according to Aucott. 

The bulls-eye pattern that most of us associate with Lyme disease is not actually what most tick bites look like, Aucott said.

"It's only about 20% of the skin lesions that look like that," Aucott said. "The other 80% are just uniformly red."

As a result, Aucott said many people miss the opportunity for an early Lyme disease diagnosis because they mistake the tick bite for a spider bite.

Any lesion that is round and bigger than two or three inches could be a tick bite - and you should get it checked out by a doctor right away, Aucott said. 

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Q: Even if you don't find a tick or have a rash, what symptoms should you look out for?

Dr. Aucott: "The first sign is a fever...we call it a summer flu, you know, fever and chills and achiness that may come on even before the rash is recognized."

Q: What should you do if you find a tick on your body?

Dr. Aucott: "Pull it off as soon as possible. The sooner you pull it off, the less likely you are to get Lyme disease...Basically you just yank it off. But the technique is to get a fine pair of forceps, or there's tools that are sold for this, and get underneath the head of the tick and then gently and firmly pull it off."

Lyme disease usually doesn't start for a week or two after the tick bite, so you have a couple days to prevent it, Aucott said. 

That's why frequent and thorough tick checks are so important, according to Aucott. 

"The sooner you pull it off, the less likely you are to get Lyme disease," Aucott said.

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