All About Ticks and Tick Removal

Don’t let the fear of a tick bite stand in the way of getting outside this summer. From Tick removal tips to identification and understanding their life cycle, understanding helps prevention.

  • Wear pants tucked into your socks and spray bug repellent with Deet on your boots and ankles to avoid disease-carrying ticks.
    Photo by Ron Erwin
  • A tiny deer tick is hard to see. Oftentimes, you feel them on you instead of seeing them.
    Photo by Susy Morris
  • The American Dog Tick or Wood Tick (Dermacentor variabilis), showing its distinctive color pattern.
    Photo by Ron Erwin

Summertime: A time for flowers, sunshine, warm weather and cooking over an open flame. There is no denying that summer is the highlight of every child’s – and many adults’ – year; at least for schoolchildren. But nothing can spoil the summertime fun quite like a tick bite.

Ticks are, unfortunately, a part of summer in all 50 states in the United States. It’s not just that these little buggers cause discomfort and misery, but they also pose a health threat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Lyme disease transmitted by ticks is the most common vector-borne illness in the U.S. There are several other tick-borne illnesses, and they can cause allergies as well.

Understanding your adversary is the first step toward defense. Seven common human-biting species of ticks endemic to the United States are the American dog tick, blacklegged tick, brown dog tick, Gulf Coast tick, Lone Star tick, Rocky Mountain wood tick, and the western blacklegged tick. Even the experts often have trouble distinguishing between these species, as they can be nearly impossible to identify in their early stages of life and appear very similar as adults. Regardless of species, many tick characteristics remain the same.

Ticks 101

Most tick species in the U.S. have a “three-host” life cycle, once hatched from an egg. The cycle requires a blood meal at each stage. They begin their life as six-legged larvae that hatch from an egg. These larvae will remain on the ground or on a short plant waiting for a small host such as mice, rabbits or voles. They will remain on this host for around four days before dropping off and molting into an eight-legged nymph. These nymphs will spend around six days on another small mammal or even larger prey, such as a opossum or raccoon, before molting yet again. The final adult life cycle is when they become a problem for most humans and pets. Females are the only adult tick that poses a threat to humans, as they are the only ones who must feed. Males do not feed off human hosts, they simply mate with the females and then die.

Ticks find their hosts through a unique detection system, which allows them to identify hosts by their breath, body heat, body odor, moisture, vibration, and some species can even recognize a shadow. Most adult ticks will perch on a plant, holding on with their third and fourth pairs of legs while “questing” with their front legs outstretched, waiting to grab onto a passing host. Once a host is found, ticks embed their feeding tubes into their host and begin to suck blood. A few species have a cementlike secretion that helps keep them firmly attached while feeding, while others have special barbs on their feeding tubes.

Ticks begin their life cycles flat and hard-bodied with an outer “shield” that makes them difficult to kill. As they feed, they become engorged with blood from the host. This fully fed tick does not at all resemble its hungry pre-attached self. 

7/2/2018 10:35:17 AM

I would save the tick in a jar of water, rather than alcohol, which might affect lab testing.

7/2/2018 8:49:28 AM

GREAT article! My chiropractor's office is "Shining a Light on Lyme", motivated by the office manager's on-going battle with the effects of Lyme Disease. She was misdiagnosed a number of times, so the bacteria had time to do its damage. I am sending a link to your article to my loved ones. I really like the biology included in a solid, easy-to-follow format. Thank you!

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