My black-legged tick relatives (also known as deer ticks) and I will be out in full force this spring, especially in the Northeast. We’re the kind of ticks that can transmit Lyme disease, a bacterial
infection that can cause chronic fatigue, joint pain, and other problems
if left untreated.
More than before, we’re looking for humans to feast on. That’s because our usual meal of choice—white-footed mice—is not as available this year, thanks to phenomenally poor acorn growth in the fall of 2011. (The mice eat the acorns, and ticks feed on the mice; it’s very Circle of Life.)
I may look pretty large and in charge in a photo, but in real life I am very tricky to spot, especially when I’m still a baby. Ticks go through four developmental stages: egg, larvae, nymph, and then adult. Tick larvae are about the size of this period. Nymphs are about as big as a poppy seed and adults are roughly the size of a sesame seed. Teeny.
It’s important to know what we look like, in case you spot a tick on your body or on your pet. Technically, we’re in the same class as spiders—arachnids—which means we have eight legs compared to insects’ six. Ticks are also wingless and have a single oval-shaped body that’s usually pretty flat unless it’s engorged with blood after a feeding.
Lyme disease gets a lot of attention, likely because it has the potential to be the most chronic of all the tick-borne illnesses, but we ticks can spread at least 10 different known diseases in humans, including Rocky Mountain spotted fever, babesiois, anaplasmosis, and ehrlichosis. The kind of illness I give you depends on my species (there are more than 800 species of ticks in the world, and at least 90 in the continental United States) and the different bacteria or other pathogens I’m carrying.
It's admittedly tricky to tell if you've been bitten, because symptoms can be vague and easy to confuse with those of other illnesses. Mostly you'll feel flu-like (fever, chills, aches and pains) and develop a rash. But Lyme disease is often misdiagnosed, and as many as nine out of 10 cases go unreported. So if you think you've been bitten, see your doctor right away to reduce the risk of serious complications.
There’s no need to panic if you spot me on your body or on your pet. That’s because not all ticks are infected with disease, and removing them promptly can reduce the odds we’ll spread it to you. Most people who are bitten by a tick do not get Lyme disease or other tick-borne illnesses.
For example, in areas of the Northeast and upper Midwest where we ticks love to cluster, only about 25 percent of nymphs and 50 percent of adults have been found to harbor Lyme-causing bacteria.
And your risk of getting an infection like Lyme disease is significantly lower if you remove a tick within 36 hours.
If you’ve been bitten by a tick, there’s usually no need to do anything unless you start experiencing symptoms. (Antibiotics aren’t given just because of a tick bite, although some doctors may prescribe them prophylactically).
But many people aren’t clued into symptoms and focus too much on the rash—or lack thereof. The telltale bull’s eye rash for Lyme disease (other tick-borne illnesses have “trademark” rashes too) occurs in just 70 to 80 percent of cases, for example. In Rocky Mountain spotted fever, about 10 percent of people never experience a rash.
In other words, just because you don’t have a rash doesn’t mean you don’t have a tick-borne illness, especially when you’re experiencing other symptoms like fever and aches and pains.
Protect your pooch by checking daily for me, and using a tick repellent lotion or collar. If you live in a very tick-dense area and your dog spends a lot of time outside, you can also talk to your vet about vaccination. However, vaccines aren’t available for all the tick-borne illnesses dogs can get, and they also don’t stop dogs from bringing ticks into your home and possible spreading them to you.
If you’ve got a cat who spends time outdoors, talk to your vet about the right protective products. Cats are very sensitive to many chemicals, so don’t apply anything without first consulting the doctor.
I’m most likely to transmit Lyme disease to humans as a nymph (typically late spring and early summer), and that’s mainly because I’m small and hard to spot, so people don’t have the chance to remove me before I get them sick.
Although I’m pretty hard to see because of my small size, the best place to look for me is your ankles—we tick nymphs don’t crawl high off the floor.
Since Lyme and some other diseases aren’t instantly transmitted when a tick latches on, experts say doing frequent tick checks is the most effective way to prevent illness. More tips: Wear light-colored clothing, which is easier to spot us on, keep shirts tucked in, and always wear closed-toe shoes in woodsy areas. Keep long hair tied back, especially when gardening, and don’t sit directly on the ground or stone walls. Examine your clothes, gear, and pets thoroughly after spending time outdoors. And check your skin. Some of us will attach right away, but others will wander and look for places like the ear or other areas where the skin is thinner. Don’t forget about some of my sneakiest hiding spots, like under the arms, inside the belly button, and around all head and body hair.
Some ticks don’t implant right away, so showering within a couple of hours of gardening or walking in the woods may remove them. It’s also a good idea to put clothes in the dryer on high heat for 20 minutes, which can destroy ticks hiding on your clothes you may have missed.
Want to keep me out of your yard? Keep up with the landscaping. Ticks require a lot of humidity to survive, so we tend to stay away from well-groomed lawns that lack shade—we just can’t take the heat and will leave to seek shelter elsewhere. You’re most likely to find us near the edge of your lawn: Some 82 percent of deer ticks, for example, have been found within nine feet of the edge. A wood chip, tree bark, mulch, or gravel barrier between the woods and your lawn can prevent us ticks from migrating onto the lawn.
Clean up piles of brush, remove weeds, mow grass regularly, and trim bushes at the edge of your property. These steps should also keep mice, which we also love to feed on, at bay. If you live in an area with lots of ticks, consider hiring someone to thin out trees to allow more sunlight in, which will lower humidity and keep us away.
Unfortunately for us ticks, chemicals can help destroy us. Products with DEET (those that contain 20 percent or more) are good choices. The chemical permethrin, which can be used only on clothing, not skin, is also very effective as a tick repellent. It remains protective through several washings.
You can also treat your property with acaricides (pesticides that kill ticks); many can only be used by licensed commercial pesticide applicators, so ask your landscaper if you’re interested.
All you need is a pair of fine-tipped tweezers (avoid methods like covering the tick with nail polish or petroleum jelly, or using heat to make it detach). Grab the tick as close to the surface of your skin as possible and pull upward with steady pressure. Twisting or yanking the tick too quickly can cause some of its mouth parts to remain in your skin. Clean the area thoroughly with soap and water, rubbing alcohol, or an iodine scrub.
Never crush the tick with your fingers after removing it, because this may still transmit disease.
It’s a good idea to save me in case your doctor wants to see me later. Stick me in a jar or plastic bag or tape me with clear tape to an index card, noting the day you removed me. Putting some rubbing alcohol in the jar will kill me.
I’m not born with Lyme disease; I actually pick up the bacteria that cause it and other diseases when I first start my vampire shenanigans as a larvae. Here’s how it works: I eat my first blood meal as an itty bitty larvae, and it’s here that I can contract Lyme-causing bacteria from my host, like a mouse.
Once I’m done feeding, I drop off, return to the ground, and molt into a nymph. Then I’m hungry again, and seek out another host—this time, perhaps a human, maybe you!—to feed on. But now that there’s bacteria in my blood, I can transmit it to my new host, and possibly get him sick. Then I drop off, return to the ground, and molt into a grown-up. And, not surprisingly, I’m hungry again—and need the fuel to reproduce—so I find another host and feed again, then mate, and then, unfortunately, I die. Well, not unfortunately for you.