After finding a tick firmly affixed to my knee after a hike in October (I was wearing pants), I can’t say I’m desperate to know where ticks go in the winter.
I’m just happy to know that these teeny-tiny blood-guzzling eight-legged arthropods are mostly gone until early-spring. Note, mostly gone.
In Virginia, there are four ticks that we are most likely to encounter. These include: the lone star tick, American dog tick, deer tick and brown tick.
Of the four, only the brown tick is not known to carry disease. The American dog tick and brown tick may carry Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
The deer tick (also known as a blacklegged tick) is the one we are most wary of as it has been known to transmit Lyme disease.
Do Ticks Die in the Winter?
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Ticks do not die in winter, at least not in Virginia where the average winter lows are only in the mid-20s. Instead, they go dormant or inactive.
Typically, ticks go into dormancy at temperatures below 35 degrees. Ticks can die in winter, but only when it gets very cold, like below 14 degrees.
It’s rare for it to get this cold in Virginia. So, ticks never truly go away. Instead, they shelter in dead leaves, rotting wood and decomposing vegetation.
Winter ticks may ride out the cold weather months by latching onto a host, like a deer, cow, elk or horse. These ticks do not typically latch onto humans.
When Do Ticks Come Out in Spring?
Once the there is a spell of two or three days in which temperatures are 45 degrees and higher, ticks will resume activity and search for a host.
In Virginia, this means that ticks generally return to the woods and hiking trails by early-April. In this month, average highs reach the low-50s.
Ticks may return a bit sooner than mosquitos, which prefer days that are 50 degrees and higher before coming back for the season.
Like mosquitos, ticks also thrive in moist, humid environments, peaking in numbers and activity levels in the warm summer months.
Why are Ticks So Dangerous?
Ticks are tiny, blood-sucking insects. They feast on blood meals, which they can get from many kinds of animals, including humans, like you and me.
Not all ticks spread disease, but the one that’s most worrisome to Virginians is the deer tick. This disease-carrying tick is responsible for Lyme disease.
These ticks live in wooded areas with lots of shrubs and tall grasses. They lie in wait until a hiker walks by and brushes against the grasses and shrubs.
Ticks require blood from a host, like a human, for survival. So, it behooves them to bide their time until a host comes by and they can enjoy a feast.
Ticks cannot jump, but they can climb and crawl to reach your bare skin once they’ve attached themselves to your pant leg or shirt sleeve.
A bite from an infected deer tick can lead to the transmission of Borrelia Burgdorferi, the bacterium known to cause Lyme disease.
Soon after a germ-laden tick bite, look for the bull’s eye rash that is the calling card of Lyme disease. You may also experience flu-like symptoms.
Lyme disease is typically treated with antibiotics. Left untreated, this disease can cause heart, brain, joint and nervous system issues.
How Do I Prevent Tick Bites in Winter?
Since you may still encounter ticks in winter, especially during a mild winter, there are a few ways you can protect yourself from these eight-legged pests.
Note that these tips are as valuable in summer as they are in winter, though you may experience ticks more frequently in warm weather months.
First, wear light-colored clothes. This won’t repel ticks, but it will make these dark-colored arthropods easier to spot when doing a post-hike tick check.
Next, tuck your pants into your socks or wear leg gaiters. Ticks typically try to attach to a host at a low point and this will help keep them from your skin.
Slather on or spray yourself with an insect repellant. Personally, I’m partial to Sawyer’s picaridin insect repellant. It’s got nearly 6,000 five-star ratings.
When hiking, choose wide paths and stay to the middle of trails. This will help you to avoid brushing up against tall grasses and shrubs harboring ticks.
Last, always do a tick check once off the hiking the trail. Home in on warmer parts of your body, like armpits, scalp, necks and waistbands.
What Do I Do if I Get a Tick Bite?
If you realize after a hike that a tick has bitten you and is now lodged in your skin, remove the tick in its entirety with tweezers or a tick removal tool.
Be slow and meticulous when you remove the tick. You want to avoid leaving the tick’s germy head and mouth embedded in your skin.
If this happens, remove as much of the mouth parts as you can, then let the skin heal. Clean the bite area with soap and water, as well as rubbing alcohol.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, follow up with your doctor if you develop a rash or fever within a few weeks of the bite.
This post is part of a series called Question of the Week where I share the answers to questions related to hiking on Mondays.