Ticks are parasites that feed on the blood of mammals, including pets and people. If that isn’t creepy enough on its own to make you do everything you can to avoid them, ticks also have the potential to transmit around 40 pathogens that cause disease. Not all ticks carry infection, but a single tick bite can transmit multiple infections. So, being tick smart is important for your health. Here’s the lowdown.
The lifecycle of a tick
Ticks progress between life stages by molting after they feed on a host, which is known as having a blood meal. Some ticks like to feed on the same host at each lifecycle stage and some choose a different host. The 4 life stages are:
To successfully complete the life cycle, a tick will feed 3 times. Their sole purpose is to find hosts so they can survive long enough to reproduce. And when we say “hosts,” we mean people like us, our pets, and any other innocent creatures they latch onto like small mammals, birds, even reptiles.
How ticks find us, and where we can find them
Ticks love to live in grassy or brush-like areas around ground level. They don’t jump, fly, or fall out of trees to find hosts. Instead, they find well-traveled paths by detecting hosts’ breath, scent, body heat, or vibrations. Then they lay in wait along those paths for a passing host. This wait-and-watch technique is called “questing.”
While questing, a tick will hold on to the tip of a leaf or blade of grass with its back two pairs of legs. Then, it will stretch out the front two pairs of legs so that it can quickly climb on when a host brushes against their questing spot. Then the tick will climb up to find a preferred feeding spot.
Some of the most common places people and pets pick up ticks are:
How ticks feed and transmit infections
Tick saliva has a special cocktail of proteins and other molecules that make blood flow efficient, which helps avoid detection by the host. A tick’s saliva contains a painkiller, so you typically do not even feel a tick bite. The tick itself does not become embedded, they only pierce the skin with their mouthparts.
A tick transmits infection through the saliva it uses when feeding on a host. The risk of infection increases the longer a tick is attached, but according to the Centers for Disease Control (the CDC), a tick only needs to be attached for a few hours to transmit infection. They do not have to become engorged or filled with blood to infect their host.
A common early sign of Lyme disease may be the "bulls eye" rash. It begins as a red area, and the rash increases in size with a ring around the outside.
Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses
Lyme disease is probably the most well-known illness that comes from the bite of the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis or Ixodes pacificus). But there are also several more diseases transmitted by ticks like Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF), Powassan, and Babesiosis – all of which have been in the news. Some of these diseases can cause prolonged health issues in the infected person, so it’s important to let your doctor know immediately if you experience symptoms.
Also keep in mind that, while we know getting bitten by an infected tick can lead to these illnesses, there are a lot of cases in which the patient does not recall a tick bite. Larvae and nymph ticks are much smaller and harder to detect than adult ticks. Nymphs can be as small as a poppy seed! And ticks do not have to be attached long to transmit disease. The Powassan Virus can be transmitted to a human in as little as 15 minutes. Thankfully, the CDC reports that most people do not get sick from Powassan however the reported numbers have increased over the last decade.If you like to spend time outdoors and notice symptoms, such as the hallmark bullseye rash of Lyme disease, don’t ignore them because you haven’t been bitten. Early treatment is always best, so let your health care provider know when you have any symptoms.
When ticks are active
There’s no comfortable answer here. Ticks live year-round, and remain active at temperatures right around freezing. A common misconception is that when “peak season” ends and fall rolls in, ticks aren’t a threat anymore. But, at this point in the season, the ground becomes covered in leaves, which are a habitat that ticks thrive in. And this is also when people interact with leaves to clean up their yards, so that could be an opportunity for a tick who missed finding a host during the peak season to look for a meal. It’s good to be tick smart year round.
How to remove a tick
First things first, don’t panic! If the tick is attached, remember that not all ticks are infected, so you don’t have any reason to think you’ve been infected. Also, removing the tick as quickly as possible will also greatly reduce your risk of infection. Remain calm and avoid the temptation to remove the tick with your fingers.
To properly remove a tick, do the following:
Don’t attempt to get the tick to back out on its own. There are a lot of “home remedies” that people have used to make the tick abandon its meal. While these methods may be effective at ending the meal, it can also cause the tick to regurgitate, which could increase your potential exposure.
Remain calm, locate the proper tools, and remove the tick using the tips above. Then, wash your hands and the bite area with soap and water or rubbing alcohol.
How to kill a tick
Once the tick is removed, there are a few options to kill it:
Once you have immobilized the tick, you may want to tape it to an index card or piece of paper and store it in a safe place. You can write the date it was removed and where you think you may have picked up the little hitch-hiker. This can help you remember the information for your doctor if you develop symptoms, and it will preserve the tick for testing, if necessary.
How to prevent tick bites
Here are some tips that can help:
Ticks have been around for millions of years. In fact, there’s fossil evidence that they have been around since the dinosaurs. They’re incredibly resilient in survival and all over the United States. But that doesn’t mean we have to give up our favorite activities or live in fear. We just need to be smart – tick smart.