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.
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.
Transmission of disease
Tick larvae do not initially carry disease. Most become infected during their first host cycle, when they prey on diseased small rodents. White-footed mice are a popular first host, as well as a very common carrier of diseases and parasites that can infect humans. Once infected, ticks are able to spread the disease through their saliva into their second or third host.
A common misperception regarding ticks is that disease can occur at the onset of a bite. However, in the case of many vector-borne illnesses, transmission is not possible unless the tick feeds for a prolonged time. For instance, Lyme disease requires a minimum 24 to 48 hours of tick attachment time – the tick is actively engaged in feeding – for transmission to occur. There is no reason to panic if you find yourself the victim of a tick bite. Frequent body checks and quick removal are keys to disease prevention.
Natural tick prevention
Avoiding tick habitat is the best method of protection. Ticks love high grass, leaf litter, brushy areas, and the borders of wooded walking trails. Ticks don’t like gravel and wood chips, so you can use these materials to establish play areas around pools, playground equipment, and more. Planting pennyroyal as a yard border is said to ward off ticks, as they do not like the scent of plants in the mint family. Lemongrass is also a tick deterrent – and it has a wonderful fragrance.
Also add a few new pets to your yard. Chickens, ducks and guinea fowl love to snack on bugs, ticks included. Chickens will also prey on small rodents, cutting down on available first hosts – and possible disease originators – on your property.
Pants, long sleeves and tight-fitting cuffs will help prevent ticks from contacting the skin. Once you return indoors, do a thorough body check. When possible, shower shortly after returning indoors for best chance to catch crawling ticks before they attach.
Many forms of chemical tick repellent are also available on the market.
Household pets are the easiest access ticks have to a free meal and to your family. Prevent unwanted pests on your pets by using either chemical or natural tick protection.
A beautiful day of hiking in the woods has left you exhausted and ready for bed, but when you scratch an itch, your finger catches on a tiny “bump” that wasn’t there before. Oh, no, a hitchhiker! A few easy removal tips can have you tick free in a matter of seconds.
1. Using fine-tipped tweezers, grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible.
2. Pulling upward, steadily remove the tick, taking care not to twist or jerk, as this can cause the mouth to break off and remain in the skin, which could cause infection.
3. Clean the bite area with soap and water, rubbing alcohol or iodine.
4. Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water, especially if the tick was crushed or became separated. It is possible to contract disease through an open cut if exposed to tick fluids.
Most health authorities recommend you keep all attached ticks for several weeks in case of illness, so they may be tested. Empty baby food jars or similarly sized containers are perfect for this. Simply fill with alcohol, and place all attached ticks into the jar after removal. Others prefer to tape ticks inside a notebook with a documented date and location found, or another similar method.
Suzanne Cox lives in Tennessee with her husband and three children. They raise Nubian goats, Scottish Highland cattle, and chickens for 4H. Keep up with their farm adventures on Facebook at ANS Farms.