Ticks are nasty little creatures who wait for unsuspecting victims to brush their perch, such as a tall blade of grass, or to sit on their hideout, such as a fallen log. Then they crawl like eight-legged vampires to suck their quarries’ blood. Yuck!
No one is particularly fond of ticks, yet they do serve several respectable purposes in the wild. Reptiles, birds and amphibians feed on them. They help keep animal populations in check, and biologists use them as an indicator of the overall health of an ecosystem. However, ticks mostly tick us off with their blood-sucking, disease-spreading ways.
A tick can’t fly, jump or blow in the wind. It senses a warm-blooded animal, including a person, from a long distance, waits patiently for it to get closer, then walks, sometimes several feet, onto its target. Once on its prey, it may crawl anywhere before burrowing its barbed mouth into its host’s skin. It engorges itself until it balloons ten-times its size while sometimes infecting its host with a potentially life-threatening illness.
What’s more, the victim probably doesn’t know it has provided a meal. Ticks have neurotoxins in their saliva that deaden the feeling of the bite. Ticks may be tinier than your pinky nail, but they are one of your biggest enemies in the woods.
Fifty years ago, ticks were less of a concern as far north as Minnesota, but with climate change, they now seem to be everywhere in the Lower 48. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, of the dozen types of ticks in the state, three of them – the black-legged tick (deer tick), American dog tick (wood tick) and the lone star tick – can carry scary diseases.
The black-legged tick is the smallest but the most infectious, causing dreaded Lyme Disease. About 1,000 cases of Lyme disease occur in Minnesota per year, with another 500 probable cases. The American dog tick can carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever and tularemia (rabbit fever), a rare, painful illness that affects the skin, lungs, eyes and lymph nodes. Lone star ticks can also transmit tularemia, as well as a Lyme disease-like condition called STARI and ehrlichiosis, which feels like the flu but if left untreated can result in kidney, respiratory, heart and/or nervous system failure. For such a small critter, a tick can sure pack a super-sized punch!
Luckily, ticks don’t seek a meal unless they are passing from one stage of life into another, from larva to nymph or from nymph to adult. That said, there are millions of them waiting to suck your blood. They start to get active right after the snow melts through mid-July. They perk up again in the fall, then disappear after freeze-up. In general, these cold-blooded arachnids go dormant during the winter, hiding under leaf litter or brush piles. The snow protects them until warm weather reenergizes them. Yet even during the winter, if the temperature sneaks above freezing, a deer tick might wake up and feed.
It’s worth being vigilant about ticks. You can die from tick-borne diseases like Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and a lifetime of incurable, debilitating joint pain, a consequence of contracting Lyme disease, would certainly put a damper on your hunting, fishing and other outdoor pastimes.
GET IT OFF!
If you find a tick on yourself, other family members or your pet, the quicker you remove it, the less your chance of getting infected by a tick-borne illness, particularly if you catch it before it engorges. Coating the tick with nail polish or petroleum jelly or using heat doesn’t work. Here’s how to get the ugly bugger off:
- Using fine-tipped tweezers, grasp the tick as close as possible to the skin’s surface.
- Pull upward with steady pressure. Don’t twist or jerk as this can cause part of the tick to break off in the skin.
- If part of the tick stays in the skin, remove what you can with the tweezers. If the mouth breaks off and you can’t remove, leave it.
- Clean the bite thoroughly with rubbing alcohol, iodine or other topical antibacterial first aid ointment.
- Save the tick by placing it in a zip-lock bag with a moist piece of paper towel, then placing it in the refrigerator until you can visit a doctor. If symptoms develop, which can take several weeks after the bite, your doctor can better diagnosis the illness with a live tick. If the tick dehydrates and dies, the lab cannot test it.
KEEP IT OFF!
Ticks thrive in moist locales, especially in wooded or grassy areas. Here’s how to reduce your odds of getting bit by a tick.
- Avoid brushing against leaf litter, shrubs and grasses, by walking in the center of trails.
- Use tick repellent with at least 20% DEET. Note: Certain natural repellents, such as citronella and eucalyptus, deter ticks, but must be applied every half hour to be effective.
- Wear clothing and shoes and use camping gear treated with permethrin, a tick repellent.
- Wear light-colored long-sleeves, long pants (to make it easier to spot ticks), socks and shoes.
- Tuck your pants inside your socks or wear gaiters to prevent ticks from crawling up your legs.
- Have your veterinarian prescribe a tick collar or anti-tick medicine for your pets.
- Keep your pets on a leash or contained in a kennel or in your yard rather than free-roaming.
- Do a tick check on yourself and your family members after spending time outdoors, particularly under the arms, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, on the back of the knees, in all body hair, in the groin area and around the waist.
- Take a shower after outdoor activities.
- Keep your yard mowed and clear of leaf litter.
- Keep the play areas around your house vegetation-free.
- Discourage deer from entering your yard with tall fences and by avoiding landscaping that deer like to browse.
- Dry your laundry in a drier on high heat.
- Sit on a rock rather than a log in the woods.
- If you carry wood, check yourself carefully for ticks.
Lisa Ballard writes about all things outdoors when she’s not exploring various wild parts of the country and the world. Ticks give her the creeps. To see her award-winning articles and photos, go to www.LisaBallardOutdoors.com.