This past winter, I was in Saugatuck doing some Christmas shopping, and saw a man that I recognized, though I couldn’t place where or how I knew him. “I think I should know you”, I said. “From the nursery”, he replied, “You were helping me when you found that tick on your head, and screamed for Jan to get it off.” Oh, yeah….how could I forget that traumatic experience?
We had a good laugh over the incident, though I suppose it should have been somewhat embarrassing to be recognized for doing my “GET IT OFF-GET IT OFF-GET IT OFF!!!!!” dance. At the time though, I wasn’t the least bit amused; it was the first of two ticks I found stuck to my scalp last summer. The second time, at least, was much less dramatic….only because there was no one around to hear me scream, or see me dance. But seriously, ticks bites can be dangerous business.
Ticks are vectors of Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and tularemia; Lyme disease is the leading vector transmitted disease in the northern hemisphere, with more than 30,000 cases reported each year, and it is becoming more widespread. Black-legged ticks (a.k.a. deer ticks) are the only tick species that transmit the disease in the eastern and north-central United States; the western black-legged tick is the vector in the Pacific states.
Ticks are arachnids, and are related to spiders, mites, scorpions, and other eight-legged creepy crawlies. The black-legged tick, a “hard tick”, ambushes its host by climbing to the edge of a leaf or branch, and waiting with its front legs outstretched to latch onto the next unsuspecting “blood-meal” that passes. This is called “questing”, and begins as early as the spring thaw, continues throughout summer and into fall.
Once the tick hitches a ride on the passing host, it looks for a suitable feeding site. Favored locations are around the waistline, thighs, armpits, and head, but they are not very choosy, and may attach themselves anywhere.
A tick may remain attached to its host for 3 to 7 days. Removing them promptly can reduce the risk of disease transmission; ticks infected with the Lyme disease bacteria are less likely to pass it on to their hosts if removed within 48 hours. If you find one of these vampiric buggers attached to you, remove it with fine-tipped tweezers, grasping the tick as close to your skin as possible. Carefully pull with even pressure, avoiding twisting or jerking as this can result in the tick’s head or mouthparts breaking off and remaining in the skin. After removal, clean the bite area thoroughly with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.
Insect repellents containing at least 20% DEET will ward off ticks. If you’d rather not use chemicals on your body, organic choices for repelling ticks are neem oil, tea tree oil, soybean oil, and garlic pills, although testing done on these and other plant-based repellents found they are mostly ineffective protection against ticks.
When gardening or doing other outdoor activities, the best defense may be vigilance - thoroughly check yourself, your family, and pets after being outside. It may not be possible to avoid areas where ticks reside waiting to embrace you with arms outstretched. It is possible, however, to avoid becoming their host. Keep exposed skin to a minimum by wearing a hat, long pants and long-sleeved shirts. Light-colored clothing makes it easier to spot any ticks crawling on you, looking for bare skin. Tucking in your shirt-tails, and wearing belted pants keeps them from crawling down your waistband, and tucking your pant legs into boots or long socks prevents them from crawling up your bare legs. No, it may not be as stylish as the latest Laura Ashley line of garden fashions, but it is less embarrassing than being caught doing the “GET IT OFF!!!! dance…..and much less hazardous to your health than contracting Lyme disease.
Photo courtesy of Michigan State University Extension