Well I’m back from a long visit home to North Dakota. My mom’s side of the family was born and raised in central ND and I went home for a family reunion, the centennial celebration of Tuttle, ND (my great-grandma’s hometown), and the Scandinavian Hjemkomst Festival.
While there we visited the old family homestead where my great-grandparents had six of their ten children in this house:
Long grass = tick heaven. Long grass + cows = tick PARADISE.
We then tried to walk through the fields out to “the big rock,” a glacial leftover where my grandmother and her sisters used to hang out when they went to bring the cows home. It’s a lovely little spot. Except the grass was thigh-high and we decided to follow the cow path to get there.
BAD IDEA. We’d already found a few ticks on us after tromping through the long grass, but after following the cow path for about 20 yards and then stopping to look down, my mom, cousin and I realized that we were crawling with ticks! The little buggers had dropped off of and/or sought out the big, warm, hairy cows, but were happy to jump on us instead. We quickly flicked as many as we could off of us, then hightailed it back to the car, taking the roundabout, non-cow-trail way this time. I was wearing a jean skirt and tennis shoes and hiked up my skirt to check for ticks, then took off my shoes and found them secreted in between the tied laces and between the tongue and top of my shoes and just about everywhere they could fit their flat little bodies. Because we were still out in the middle of nowhere, we just flicked them off of us. And then picked them off of my pants-wearing cousin during the car ride home and flicked them out the window.
But few people encounter ticks on the open prairie. And people really freak out about ticks (although after having that many on me, I’m totally desensitized now), so I thought I’d write this little article to be informative about ticks and their habits, how to avoid them, and how to deal with them when you get bitten.
There are three main kinds of ticks that commonly feed on humans – the American dog tick (also known as wood ticks), the Lone Star tick, and deer ticks. Of the three types, only deer ticks carry Lyme disease.
For help identifying ticks, check out this great website by the University of Rhode Island. Deer and dog/wood ticks are the most common in the Northeast.
Ticks can bite and feed off of people at nearly any stage of life after they are hatched. Right now deer tick nymphs (which look like itty, bitty ticks) are in full swing. Summertime is the most common time for people to be bitten or find ticks on themselves. This is primarily because people are spending more time outside, but also because this is prime tick season. Many ticks are inactive and/or cannot feed during colder weather. They are not, however, killed by frosts so precautions should be taken throughout the year.
Ticks live on blades of grass and leaves and latch onto mammals that brush up against the grass and leaves. They are most common in tall grass and vegetation, though you can pick them up from your lawn as well. Ticks cannot jump or fly and they do not live in trees.
Here are some helpful hints for avoiding ticks:
- Stay on the beaten path. Avoid walking through heavy brush and/or tall grass. If walking through the woods, stick to open areas and avoid plants (this is also helpful in avoiding poison ivy).
- Except for beaten livestock or deer paths. Ticks can be even worse there as they drop off of deer and cows where those animals frequent the most. So stay on the people paths.
- If you do have to travel through grass or heavy brush, there are two options: have bare, shaven legs and check frequently for ticks (like, every 10 minutes) and do a full-body tick check when finished. OR wear long pants tucked INTO high cotton socks. If you can find clothing or especially socks treated with permethrin or treat them yourself this will also help. Always check for ticks even if you wear treated clothing and/or tuck your pants into your socks. Ticks can hide themselves in any crevice, so check shoes and the seams of your pants as well.
- If you do find a tick crawling on you, get it off immediately. Killing ticks is preferable to just flicking them off, especially deer ticks as they carry Lyme and other diseases and bacteria.
How to kill a tick
Ticks are notoriously hard to kill. You cannot simply step on them like other arachnids. Hard-shelled ticks (which include deer, wood, and lone star ticks) must have their shell pierced in order to be killed. You can do this several ways. The simplest is to crush them against a hard surface with your fingernail or another sharp object such as a knife. You can also cut them in half with scissors. If they are very tiny, the fingernail method works well, as does crushing the tick with a sharp rock against a hard flat surface, like another rock.
You can also kill ticks by dropping them in liquid alcohol (shake it to fully submerse them) or burning them (especially the head) with a lit match. But cutting them in half or smushing them is the easiest way.
However, with deer ticks, the bacteria that cause Lyme disease live inside the tick and can be spread by smushing, so alcohol and burning are the most effective way to kill them. You can also flush them down the toilet if you’re really kill-avoidant. Also note that the vaseline method does not work as ticks cannot really be smothered and can survive without air for a long time.
Dealing with ticks “dug in”
When a tick bites you or your pet, they can often “dig in” and bury their whole head into the skin. Ticks cannot bury their whole bodies, however, just their heads.
Once you have been bitten by a tick, remove it as soon as possible. The easiest way to do this is with pointy-ended tweezers, though angle-edged tweezers work also. If you can’t stomach removing it yourself, have someone else do it. Try to get the whole tick out, including the head. Pull slowly so as not to rip off the head. The tick will often take a small piece of skin with it, but ticks secrete a numbing agent (which is how they bite us without us noticing), so it shouldn’t hurt.
If you don’t have tweezers on hand, use your fingers and/or fingernails and pull gently, but firmly and slowly.
Once the tick is removed, kill it (see above) and swab the area with rubbing alcohol and/or wash it with antibacterial soap, especially if it is a deer tick. Lyme disease is caused by Lyme bacteria, so alcohol and other antibacterial agents can help kill it.
If the tick is already swollen with blood, dispose of it by flushing it down the toilet. If the tick is so swollen it has dropped off of it’s own accord, simply throw it away. It’s not going anywhere.
Lyme disease is carried primarily by deer ticks and for some reason seems to be more prevalent in the Northeast than in the Midwest. Lyme disease is NOT carried by American dog ticks, a.k.a. wood ticks.
Lyme disease signs include flu-like symptoms such as fatigue or tiredness, joint pain, fever or chills, headaches, and swollen lymph nodes. If you experience these symptoms in concert and they do not go away, see a doctor and get tested for Lyme if you have been exposed to deer tick bites.
The most obvious sign is a bulls-eye-like rash on the skin – a red circle surrounded by a red ring. If you find one of these rashes on your body see a doctor immediately for treatment. If the rash appears immediately and then fades, it was likely just an allergic reaction. If the rash appears 5 days to 1 month after being bitten and gets larger or if multiple rashes appear, see a doctor immediately.
If you find a deer tick bitten in on your body and think it has been on for more than 24 hours, remove it immediately, swab the area with rubbing alcohol. If you start to feel the above symptoms and especially if you see a rash 5 days to 1 month after being bitten, make a doctor’s appointment to check for Lyme. Remember, common wood ticks do not carry Lyme disease. Also, save the tick that bit you for testing for the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. That can be more accurate in diagnosis than blood tests, which are apparently more accurate in the later states of the disease.
If left untreated, Lyme bacteria can cause chronic Lyme disease, which is a permanent condition which includes achy joints or arthritis, decreased concentration, nerve damage, and vision problems. So when in doubt, see the doctor!
Lyme disease, while on the rise, is not very common when compared to the number of people who get bitten by ticks annually. Also, Lyme-disease-like symptoms can sometimes really be from something else (like in the case of someone I know, Vitamin D deficiency).
Most importantly – Don’t freak out!
The chance of getting ticks is no reason not to spend time outdoors. However, many people freak out when they find ticks on them and can rip them out, fail to kill them, or worse yet, flick them off while still alive and then lose them in the house. Think of ticks like mosquitoes. Do you freak out when one of them bites you? No, you simply kill it or wave it away. Mosquitoes and ticks both have the same reason for biting you – to suck your blood. Ticks just hang around for longer than mosquitoes. It is importantly to remove the tick quickly, but it can wait a few seconds (or even minutes) to be removed properly and killed, especially if it is already bitten in.
Now that you know a little more about ticks, I hope you will be more careful out of doors, but don’t let them keep you inside either!