A nature hike, camping trip, picnic, or casual stroll through your favorite local park can be a pleasant, invigorating experience that puts you in touch with the great outdoors. Of course, such activities can also put you “in touch” with some critters you’d do well to avoid—such as ticks.
Ticks are tiny arachnids (relatives of spiders and mites) that feed on the blood of warm-blooded animals, including humans. If that weren’t ghoulish enough, ticks are also known carriers of a variety of nasty diseases, such as lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, babesiosis, human granulocytic ehrlichiosis, and other hard-to-pronounce ailments. Though only a small percentage of ticks are disease carriers, it’s wise to take precautions to protect yourself and your family from these little bloodsuckers whenever you’re spending time in “tick country.”
What exactly constitutes tick country? Cool, moist wooded areas with thick underbrush and areas with tall grass are some of their favorite haunts. They are also encountered at the edges of wooded areas adjacent to lawns or fields. Manicured lawns, on the other hand, usually do not harbor ticks as they lack sufficient humidity for these arachnids. Ticks can also find their way into areas of human habitation aboard the family pet or to areas surrounding bird baths and feeders aboard our fine feathered friends.
Contrary to popular misconception, ticks do not fly, jump, or drop onto people from trees. They do, however, lie in wait on vegetation and grasp on to an animal or person that happens to brush by. Once they’ve grabbed on to a suitable host, they painlessly sink their mouthparts into the skin and begin to feed on blood. After feeding to the point of engorgement (during which they may swell to several times their original size), they eventually drop off.
To avoid contact with ticks and their potentially infectious feeding habits, take the following precautions:
- When venturing into tick habitat, use an insect repellent containing DEET (for the skin or clothing) or permethrin (for treating clothing, but not skin). Note: before applying any repellent to a young child’s skin or clothing, make sure it is labeled as safe for use on children.
- Wear long pants and a long-sleeve shirt, and tuck your pant legs into your boots or socks.
- Wear bright-colored clothes so ticks stand out better.
- When walking through wooded areas, stick to the center of a cleared path and avoid contact with tall grass or other vegetation.
- Use the buddy system to inspect each other thoroughly for ticks, including the hair and any skin folds, after spending time outdoors. Of course, any family pet that spends time outdoors should get the once over, too. Remember, some ticks can be as small as a poppy seed and may not be easy to spot.
If a tick has attached itself to you or a member of your family, the sooner you find and remove it, the better—especially from the standpoint of lyme disease transmission. That’s because the longer an infected tick is allowed to feed, the greater your chances of contracting the disease.
To remove a feeding tick, grasp it as close to the skin as possible with fine-point tweezers and pull it straight out. Do not twist, squeeze, or crush the tick in the process, or you risk introducing infected body fluids into the attachment site. After removing the tick, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly and disinfect the attachment site and tweezers.
It’s a good idea to place the tick in a vial or plastic bag—labeled with the victim’s name, the date, and the location on the body where the bite occurred—and store it in a refrigerator. If any physical symptoms should arise in the following days or weeks, such as a rash, severe headache, flu-like symptoms, muscle weakness, or paralysis, the tick could be useful in making a diagnosis. Be sure to seek prompt medical attention if any physical symptoms occur following a tick bite, if the tick is buried too deep in the skin to remove safely, or if you’ve been bitten by a tick in an area where lyme disease is known to be prevalent.