Tick season is about upon us. Ticks are active just about the time most hikers emerge from their wintertime slumber. April to September are the months when you stand the greatest chance of picking up this nasty little parasite!
What is a Tick?
Ticks are an external parasite that is part of the arachnid family, which anybody who knows me, knows is my least favorite family of them all! Ticks mainly survive by living off the blood of birds and mammals and may even survive to a smaller degree in the blood of reptiles and amphibians.
According to the Purdue Department of Medical Entomology there are approximately 899 species of ticks worldwide. In the United States there are over 90 different species. Ticks in the US can be subdivided into the family Ixodidae (80 species of hard ticks) and Agarsidae (10 species of soft ticks).
Where do they Live?
Productive tick habitat includes areas of vegetation at forest edges, grassy fields and along game trail edges. Bring in the man-made influenced habitats and you can find ticks in campgrounds, grassy areas in populated areas, power line cuts and man-made trails though forests and grasslands. For ticks to survive in a given area they need a large number of hosts to feed on during the warm months they are out.
Just like spiders, ticks have eight legs and a segmented body. Ticks are wingless and have an oval shaped body that is relatively flat and they do not jump! Their bodies are segmented into two parts with the front (capitulum) containing their head and mouth parts while the back portion (scutum) contains their digestive tract, reproductive organs and legs. As ticks feed on the blood of their host their digestive tract begins to swell and their body will increase in size and become less flat.
There are a number of serious diseases that ticks carry throughout the United States and Canada. Some ticks are known carriers of more than one of these diseases. A person infected with multiple infections often complicates the treatment by doctors.
The risk and exposure to ticks has increased signfically as people move into prime tick habitat. Additionally, tick pathogenic transmission has increased with the growth of the population and geographic distribution of white-tailed deer and wild turkey.
Common Tick-borne Diseases:
- Lyme Disease: Lyme disease is transmitted to the host primarily by blacklegged or deer ticks. These ticks have a brown coloration and may be no bigger than a pin head when they are young making them nearly impossible to spot on your clothing or
body. The bacteria Borrelia burgdorferienter enters your skin through the bite and will eventually make its way into your blood stream. For transmission to occur, the tick needs to be attached to the host for a period of 36-48 hours. After initial removal of the tick you may see small, red bumps appear at the site of the bite which is normal. But, if you are infected with lyme disease you may discover that the small red red bumps will develop into a distinguishable bullseye pattern. Over time, the rash can spread to a circle with a 12-inch diameter. It is typically not itchy or painful. A person may experience fever, chills, body aches or fatigue as a result of infection. If left untreated, lyme disease can lead to swelling and severe joint pain. Knees are the most commonly affect joints, but the pain is not limited to that area. Lyme disease can also
lead to neurological issues if untreated. Neurological affects include Bell’s palsy (paralysis of one side of the face, usually but not always temporary), numbness or weakness in the limbs, decreased muscle movement or meningitis (inflammation of membranes surrounding the brain). If treated with antibiotics you can be cured, but there is a chance that lingering effects will persist.
- Babesiosis: Commonly known as Nantucket Fever, babesiosis is closely related to malaria. Like malaria, this parasite infects red blood cells, and the symptoms can include a high fever, chills and anemia. Babesiosis is commonly contracted from deer tick bites. The good news is that the infection can usually be treated using antibiotics and anti-malaria drugs. Bad news is that if you have a compromised immune system, babesiosis may be fatal.
- Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever: Common in the Southeast, symptoms of the disease include sudden onset of fever, headache and muscle pain, followed by development
of rash. Rocky Mountain spotted fever is caused by the bacterium Rickettsia rickettsii. This is a potentially fatal human disease and is difficult to diagnose in its early stages. Symptoms vary greatly from person to person and may include fever, vomiting or nausea, headache, muscle pain, loss of appetite and the development of a rash. Treatment requires antibiotics and the sooner the treatment is started the better the potential outcome.
1: Wearing light-colored clothing is a great way to spot these little parasites as you head out for the day. Consider wearing pants that are tucked into your socks.
2: Stay on the trails and try to walk towards the middle of the trail. Brushing up against the vegetation is just what ticks are waiting for to contact their host. If you are taking a break, choose your area wisely.
3: Take time at the end of the day to do a tick check. You may want to get help to look at your back for any pests! Check everywhere if you are hiking in an area known for a high density of ticks. Just know that ticks like warm moist places…enough said I hope. Consider using a mirror for those hard to see places.
4: Finally take time to check your gear. You don’t want any hitchhikers cuddling with you at night if you can avoid it.
DEET: If you choose this route look for repellants that contain 20% or more DEET; any percentage lower than this is not effective at deterring ticks. The down side to using DEET is that it will only protect you for several hours and then you need to reapply accordingly.
Permethrin: Permethrin is an insect repellant designed to kill ticks upon contact. This product is safe for treating your clothing and gear, but should not be sprayed on your skin.
How to remove a tick (from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention website):
- Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible.
- Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don’t twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouth-parts to break off and remain in the skin. 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.
- Dispose of a live tick by submersing it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag/container, wrapping it tightly in tape, or flushing it down the toilet. Never crush a tick with your fingers.
Well, I hope that I have successfully grossed you out! Ticks are nasty little buggers that don’t have your best interest in mind, so don’t give them a chance to use you as a host.