Ticks are gross and they're dangerous. Thanks to climate change and years of suburban sprawl, tick populations are booming—as are myths about whether they can make you sick, where they like to live, and how to get rid of them.
"It turns out that a lot of what people know about ticks has been passed along for several generations," says Thomas Mather, PhD, director of University of Rhode Island's Center for Vector-Borne Disease and its TickEncounter Resource Center. But generations ago, there were different ticks that didn't carry as many diseases. Nowadays, white-tailed deer have come back from the brink of extinction to overtake forests, farms, and suburbs alike, bringing with them a number of tick species that carry a host of diseases. "The game is new, so you need new rules," says Mather.
May and June are prime "tick-birthing" seasons, and a whole new crop of hungry ticks will be on the march soon seeking out their first dinner of the season. Learn the facts about ticks so you can enjoy a disease-free summer.
Myth: Ticks die every winter.
Fact: "I would bet 50 people out of 100 would say they thought ticks died in the winter," says Mather, "but that's absolutely not true." In fact, temperatures have to drop below 10 degrees F for a long time in order for ticks to start dying off, according to Michael W. Dryden, DVM, PhD, professor in veterinary parasitology at Kansas State University. And that's simply not the reality for most of the U.S., thanks to climate change. Adult deer ticks actually begin their feeding activity around the time of the first frost, Mather adds, and they will latch onto you or your pets anytime the temperature is above freezing. But even when temps drop below freezing, he says, ticks are still out there. "They may not be as efficient at attaching themselves to a host, but they're still alive."
Myth: Ticks fall from trees.
Fact: Ticks crawl up. If you find one on your head, it's because the tick crawled up your entire body and found a home there, not because it fell from a tree branch above you. Creepy as that sounds, it's important to know, says Mather. Deer ticks—the ones that carry Lyme disease—are not as aggressive as dog ticks, and they generally stop crawling whenever they find a clothing barrier, which is why you're likely to find them around your sock line, along your underwear line, and on the backs of your knees where your shorts stop. That's also why you'll be better protected against Lyme if you tuck in your shirt, tuck your pant legs into your socks, and find other ways to create clothing barriers they can't crawl past while you're in the woods.
Myth: Every tick carries a disease.
Fact: A lot do, but not every one does. So if you find a tick on you, there's no need to panic. There are three different types of ticks that you're most likely to encounter in the U.S.: deer ticks, American dog ticks, and lone star ticks, although there are six other varieties of ticks that stick close to certain regions. Every one of those goes through three growth stages: larval, nymph, and adult.
But not every tick carries a disease at every stage of life. Larval ticks of any sort hatch from their eggs free of pathogens and don't carry disease until they feed on an animal, such as a bird or a mouse, that's infected. By far, deer ticks carry the biggest number of diseases, including Lyme disease, babesiosis, and anaplasmosis. About 70 of adult female deer ticks and 35 percent of nymphs
could make you sick with one of those diseases, says Mather. But just one in 1,000 American dog ticks is infected with Rocky Mountain spotted fever or tularemia (aka rabbit fever), and one in 20 Lone Star ticks may be infected with the agent causing human
ehrlichiosis., he says. "That's a huge difference in risk."
That's not to say you shouldn't be concerned if you do get bitten. In some regions, the Northeast, for instance, as many as 50 percent of adult female deer ticks and 25 percent of nymphs carry Lyme disease. And because the sheer number of deer ticks has skyrockted in recent years, you're more likely to encounter an infected tick than an uninfected one.
Discover your risk of getting sick based on which ticks have infiltrated your home state from TickEncounter's Current Tick Activity map.
Myth: Once you've been bitten, you'll get sick.
Fact: For most tick-borne diseases, the tick needs to be attached for longer than 24 hours to transmit disease, says Mather, because of the biology of the way ticks feed. Bacterial diseases live in ticks' stomachs, he says, but in order to be transmitted, they need to get to the saliva, a process that takes at least 24 hours—which means that checking yourself for ticks as soon as you get indoors can help you find ticks before they've had the chance to make you sick.
Myth: You'll always know if you've been bitten by a tick.
Fact: Tick bites are painless, so you certainly won't feel one, and fewer than half of people who've been infected with Lyme show the "bull's-eye rash" that was once thought to be a telltale sign of the disease. If you start showing flulike symptoms in the middle of summer (fever, chills, aches, and pains are common symptoms of a variety of tick-borne diseases), go to the doctor and ask to be tested for the illnesses associated with ticks. July and August are peak times for Lyme disease infections, says Mather, because nymphal deer tick populations surge toward the end of June, and it can take between two and three weeks to get sick.
Learn more about the symptoms from various tick-borne illnesses from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Myth: You can remove a tick with perfume, alcohol, Vaseline…
Fact: Those old tricks you learned from your relatives about removing ticks—spraying them with perfume or alcohol, lighting a match next to the tick, painting it with nail polish—are unnecessary and possibly dangerous, says the CDC. The only tool you need is a pair of needle-nosed tweezers. Grab the tick as close to the skin as possible and gently pull it out without twisting or jerking. Then wash your hands and the spot where you found it with good soap and disinfect the skin with rubbing alcohol.
Published on: May 6, 2013
Updated on: May 7, 2013