May is Peak Tick Season and Lyme Disease Awareness Month

Almost a half-million people per year contract the crippling ailment known as Lyme disease from tick bites. Here’s what you need to know to protect yourself.

By Eric Johnson and Robert Buelteman

May 7, 2024—As a rule, very few horrible things happen in the month of May—but May marks the beginning of tick season, and it’s the worst month of the year when it comes to these deadly little monsters. This is the month when tick larvae become “nymphs” and begin looking for their next blood meal. And these nasty little nymphs sometimes look for their next blood meal on your scalp, or in your armpit, or your crotch area. (I’m sorry, there’s no nice way to say it—dark and moist is their ideal habitat.)

That would be a bad enough story, because any tick can turn a nice hike into a bit of a nightmare. The problem with May’s nymph ticks is that they are among the most dangerous creatures in the woods—because they are the primary carriers of Lyme disease.

Lyme disease is an infectious disease caused by the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium, and it is mainly transmitted by tick bites. The smallest nymph ticks (many the size of poppy seeds) are the most concerning, as they are almost invisible to the naked eye and can leave an undetectable bite. And it is the nymphs that are by far the most likely to bear the Borrelia burgdorferi bug.

Here are some facts that should scare you:

  • Lyme disease is the fastest-growing infectious disease in the United States; the Center for Disease Control counts almost 500,000 new cases a year.
  • The bulls-eye rash, which you may have heard is the surefire warning sign for a Lyme-bearing tick bite, occurs in only one-quarter to one-half of cases.
  • Current testing is unreliable and often provides a false negative result.
  • The western black-legged tick, the only tick that carries Borrelia burgdorferi in California, has been found in 56 of the state’s 58 counties, including Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, and San Mateo counties.
  • Ticks in California also carry other agents that can cause disease, including ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, babesiosis, Colorado tick fever, tularemia, and relapsing fever.

How bad is Lyme disease?

Lyme disease produces symptoms that can last a lifetime, including:

  • Severe fatigue and exhaustion.
  • Joint pain, swelling, and stiffness.
  • Neurological impairment, inability to concentrate, memory loss, vision changes.
  • Difficulties with speech and writing.
  • Seizures, poor balance, migraine headaches.
  • Cardiac issues.

How can you protect yourself from getting Lyme disease?

The best way to avoid this terrible ailment is to protect yourself from tick-bites.

  • Wear light-colored clothes, including long pants and long-sleeved shirts, so ticks can be more easily spotted.
  • Use tick repellent such as DEET, lemon eucalyptus or rose geranium oils. Permethrin, an insecticide and medication, may be used on clothing and gear.
  • Avoid hiking through tall grasses.
  • Shower as soon as you can after leaving areas with ticks.
  • Place clothing in a hot dryer for 10 minutes.
  • After a hike in areas with ticks, check yourself, your partner, and your pets for up to three days.

What should you do if you are bitten by a tick?

  • Immediately remove the tick with tweezers by pulling it straight up and away from your skin.
  • Apply an antibacterial ointment.
  • Save the tick in a plastic bag to assist in future diagnoses.
  • Take a dose of doxycycline, an inexpensive and safe antibacterial drug.

Of greatest importance, do not delay or ignore symptoms! Early intervention enhances the possibility of complete recovery. Learn more at and from the Bay Area Lyme Foundation.

Note: Robert Buelteman, whose work was featured in a recent Hilltromper post, contracted Lyme disease in 2007, and still suffers from its ill effects. We are grateful to him for his help with this article.