Unique among arachnids, ticks suck blood to survive. Some are as small as a sesame seed. Like tiny vampires, they latch onto mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. There are soft ticks and hard ticks. A hard tick has a hard plate on its back and is more likely to bite and feed on people and animals, transmitting dangerous diseases. Hard ticks thrive in wooded areas, tall grass, and trees and shrubs. Some, such as dog ticks, make their way indoors on humans or canines.
Found throughout the U.S., brown dog ticks can live inside human dwellings, causing infestations that can take months to clear. They feed on canine and sometimes human blood. They are associated with Rocky Mountain spotted fever and related diseases. Deer and wood ticks live on wildlife, are found in wooded areas, and are most active from October to December. Other ticks are most active in the summer. All ticks carry more types of illnesses for pets than for humans, and comprehensive prophylactic tick treatment for your pets remains the best way to control the spread of these diseases.
Tick-borne diseases transmitted to humans
Common diseases spread by ticks include Lyme, Southern Lyme-like disease, babesia, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ehrlichiosis, Colorado tick fever, heartland virus and Bourbon virus. Now spreading northward, the Lone Star tick transmits bacteria that cause human ehrlichiosis, heartland virus, tularemia and Southern tick-associated rash illness. Lone Star ticks are aggressive and bite humans. The adult female has a white dot, or “lone star,” on its back. Lone Star tick saliva can be irritating, but redness and discomfort at a bite site don’t necessarily indicate an infection. Nymph and adult females most frequently bite humans and transmit disease. Lyme disease, the most common disease spread by Ixodes scapularis (also known as black-legged or deer) ticks in the Northern Hemisphere, affects an estimated 300,000 people a year in the United States and 230,000 people a year in Europe. Lyme disease is diagnosed based on a combination of symptoms, tick exposure history, and sometimes testing blood for specific antibodies. People treated with appropriate oral antibiotics in the early stages of Lyme disease usually recover rapidly and completely. People with certain neurological or cardiac forms of the illness may require intravenous antibiotics. A few people experience post-infection syndrome; this poorly understood illness is often called chronic Lyme disease, which may be an autoimmune disease induced by the Lyme infection.
Prevent tick bites
- Know where to expect ticks. Ticks live in grassy, brushy, or wooded areas, and on animals.
- Treat clothing and gear with products containing 0.5% permethrin.
- Use Environmental Protection Agency-registered insect repellents, epa.gov/insect-repellents. EPA’s helpful search tool bit.ly/rightrepellent can help you find the product that best suits your needs.
- Avoid contact with ticks. Avoid wooded and brushy areas with high grass and leaf litter. Walk in the center of trails. For a comprehensive guide to preventing ticks and their bites through landscaping, refer to the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station’s Tick Management Handbook, bit.ly/tickprotect.
- Don’t feed deer.
Do a tick check
- Check your clothing. Ticks may hitch a ride on clothing. Remove any ticks you find. Put dry clothes in a dryer on high heat for 10 minutes to kill ticks, and longer for damp clothing. You can also wash clothes in hot water first. Cold and medium temperature water will not kill ticks.
- Examine gear and pets. Ticks may hitch a ride on gear and pets and attach to you later, so carefully examine pets and daypacks.
- Shower soon after being outdoors. Showering within two hours of coming indoors will reduce your risk of Lyme disease and may reduce the risk of other tick-borne diseases.
- Check your body for ticks. Conduct a full-body check upon return from potentially tick-infested areas, including your backyard. Use a hand-held or full-length mirror to view all parts of your body.
Gino Bottino, M.D., has had wide experience in medical practice and emergency medical matters. A member of United States Power Squadrons First Aid Support Team (FAST) and the Safety Committee, Gino also has a background in competitive sail racing and is familiar with health-related problems afloat.