If you spend time outside or have pets that go outdoors, it’s important to be aware of ticks! Here’s a primer on types of ticks, Lyme disease symptoms, how to prevent tick bites, and how to remove ticks—plus, what to do with a removed tick!
What Are Ticks?
Ticks are small bloodsucking parasites. Although people assume ticks are insects, they are actually arachnids (like spiders) with three pairs of legs and one pair of antennae.
They are the leading carriers of diseases to humans in the U.S., and second only to mosquitoes worldwide. Similarly to mosquitoes, toxins in the tick’s saliva cause the disease. Not only do ticks carry the very dangerous Lyme disease, but also Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Colorado tick fever, or a number of other diseases. They’re efficient carriers of disease because of the way they attach themselves to feed—and the fact that they’ll take several days to finish feeding.
Types of Ticks
Hard ticks have a tough back plate and tend to feed for hours to days. With hard ticks, disease transmission usually occurs near the end of a meal.
Soft ticks have a more rounded body and lack the back plate. They usually feed for less than an hour and disease transmission can occur in less than a minute.
Lyme disease is transmitted by two species of hard ticks: the black-legged tick and western black-legged tick. Sitting on a log in the woods, leaning up against a tree or gathering wood are risky activities when trying to avoid ticks.
The black-legged tick (aka deer tick) is so tiny that it can be difficult to see. At the nymph stage it is even smaller—about the size of a poppy seed and translucent. Since the nymphs are so hard to see, they can latch on to us unnoticed. This can make it even harder to recognize the symptoms of Lyme disease for what they are. Normally these nymphs feed on mice, deer, and birds, but any warm body will do.
The deer tick is known to carry Lyme disease. If you have a tick bite from a black-legged tick, save the tick for disease testing.
The black-legged tick has a two-year life cycle. Adults feed on large animals like deer, mate, and lay eggs in the soil in fall and early spring. These eggs hatch into larvae which feed on mice, birds, and people until they become adults in the fall and start the cycle all over again.
What Is Lyme Disease?
Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, which is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected black-legged ticks. It is a regional affliction, with 95% of the cases occurring in 14 states in the Upper Midwest, New England, and the Mid-Atlantic, but the only state that has had no reports of Lyme disease is Hawaii. Lyme disease is most common in children 5 to 15 years old and adults 40 to 60 years of age, and risk of infection is greatest from May to August.
An infected tick transmits the spiral-shaped bacterium called a spirochete to us through a tick bite. Because of the spirochete’s shape, it is able to corkscrew its way from the bloodstream into soft tissue, tendons, joints, and bones. There is some controversy about how long the tick needs to be embedded to transmit the disease. The CDC says 24 hours, but some doctors claim only four hours or less will do it.
Typical symptoms include fever, headache, chills, sore joints, fatigue but this can mimic other diseases. Tick bites are also generally painless and may go completely unnoticed.
One common symptom is the telltale Lyme disease rash, called erythema migrans. This “classic” rash usually forms the shape of a bullseye around the location of the tick bite. (Note: The appearance can vary widely.) It is red and usually appears within 3 to 14 days of the tick bite. The rash will then grow larger, and sometimes more than one rash can develop.
Image: Classic “bullseye” Lyme disease rash.
Go to the doctor immediately if you have the rash. Other rashes can develop around tick bites that are not associated with Lyme disease, but it is best to be safe. Most cases of Lyme disease can be treated successfully with a few weeks of antibiotics. O, if you’ve recently had a tick bite and showing typical symptoms, you should check with your doctor. Early diagnosis and treatment will lead to full recovery.
If left untreated, Lyme disease can be incredibly debilitating as infection can spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system.
How to Prevent Tick Bites
Ticks are highly active in the early spring and again in the fall. There are several ways to keep ourselves and our pets tick-safe. Take the following precautions when working outside:
Stay out of tick-infested areas such as tall grass, brush, woods, meadows and leaf litter. Walk down the center of trails.
When outdoors, wear light-colored protective clothing.
Use a repellent that contains at least 20-30% DEET or wear clothing, gear, and shoes/boots treated with 0.5% permethrin.
Tall rubber boots are too slippery for ticks. Wear long sleeves and long pants to keep them off your skin.
Tuck your pants into your socks to keep ticks from crawling up your leg.
Before you come inside, do a “tick check” on all people and pets. Here are places ticks like to hide:
In and around the ears
Back of knees
In and around hair
Under the arms
Inside belly button
Between the legs
Shower within two hours of coming indoors to reduce risk of ticks.
Wash any clothes in HOT water and dry clothes on high heat for 10 minutes until completely dry to kill ticks.
Ticks and Pets
Dogs are especially susceptible to tick bites as well as tick diseases.
It’s very important to use a tick preventive product on your dog because there are no vaccines for tick disease. Do NOT use tick products on your cat without speaking to your vet as cats are very sensitive to chemicals.
Check your pets for ticks daily during tick season. If your dog is bitten, symptoms may not appear for 7 to 21 days so watch very carefully for any changes in behavior. Check around the ears, tail, eyelids, and toes. Also check under the collar, under the front legs, and between the bag legs.
For dogs, cleaning the yard of tall grass, brush, leaf litter, and any trask will go a long way from preventing ticks. Mow the lawn frequently. Stack wood neatly in a dry area.
Consider adding paths of gravel, stone, or wood chips between your property and any wooded areas or meadows as a barrier to stop ticks.
If you find a tick on your skin, fine-tipped tweezers or a tick key will remove a tick quite effectively. To use a tick key, simply place it over an attached tick and slide it gently along the skin, removing the tick. Tweezers require a more delicate touch:
Use the tweezers to firmly grasp the tick as close to its head and as close to your skin as possible. Avoid squeezing the tick’s abdomen; crushing a tick may transmit diseases.
Pull gently upward until the tick comes free. Do not twist and turn the tick, as the head or mouth parts may break off and stay in the skin, increasing the chances for infection. If this happens, remove the mouth-parts with tweezers. If you are unable to remove the mouth easily with clean tweezers, leave it alone and let the skin heal.
After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water.
When removing a tick with tweezers, be sure to remove the entire tick and leave no parts in the skin. (Photo Credit: University of Maine.)
Disinfect the tweezers with rubbing alcohol, and wash your hands thoroughly.
Observe the bite area for several days. Illnesses transmitted by the tick often begin only days or weeks after the tick is gone. If symptoms occur, tell the physician if you have been outdoors.
Symptoms may include fever, numbness, rash, confusion, weakness, pain and swelling in the joints, shortness of breath, nausea, and/or vomiting. Blood tests are needed to diagnose any illness.
What to Do with a Removed Tick
Dispose of a live tick by submersing it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag, and wrapping it tightly in tape. Never crush a tick with your fingers.
When disposing of a tick that has not attached yet, drop it into a sealed plastic bag and throw it into the trash. Or, you can drop it into a jar of rubbing alcohol; with this method, you can save it for later identification, although it is better not to do this if you want to have it tested for disease.
Do not flush a live tick down the toilet. Ticks do not drown in water and have been known to crawl back up out of the toilet bowl.
If you are bitten, it is recommended that you save the tick for identification and send it to a lab to test if the tick is carrying a disease. In this case, place the tick in a tightly closed container, such as a vial or a zippered plastic bag (doubled, if the tick is alive). Do not soak the tick in alcohol. If the tick is alive (which is preferable for testing), some labs ask that you place a cotton ball moistened with a few drops of water in the container. Label the container with the date, your name and contact information, the bite’s location on the body, and your general health at the time. If known, also list the geographical location from which the tick may have originated. Send live ticks as soon as possible to a lab; some labs accept dead or damaged ticks as well. If the tick is dead and you don’t want to have it tested, you can store the container in the freezer for later tick ID in case symptoms develop.
Do you often deal with ticks? How do you keep yourself tick-free? Please share with the Almanac community in the comments section below!