Quest for a Bloodmeal: How to Prevent Becoming a Tick’s Next Host
We have all seen them: small, light or dark brown ticks attached to a person or animal, slowly engorging themselves on blood. Or, perhaps more disturbing, you may have felt their tiny legs crawling up your arm or leg. In either instance, the ‘ick’ factor surrounding ticks should be enough to make everyone want to learn how to prevent being bitten.
Ticks are arachnids and are related to mites and spiders. They are typically most active in spring, summer and fall, but can be active in winter if temperatures are high enough. When spring temperatures increase, ticks will emerge from their overwintering habitats and will crawl up blades of grass or shrubs to wait for a host to pass by. Once on its host, the tick will search for an optimal place to attach and feed. After finishing her bloodmeal, the female will drop off the host to lay eggs in a crevice or under leaf litter. It takes approximately two weeks for the eggs to hatch and tiny larvae to emerge. Each life stage of a tick, larva, nymph and adult, will take a blood meal in order to complete development, and depending on the tick species, development may take from several months to over two years.
It is during the feeding process that a tick can transmit diseases to humans and animals. Tick mouthparts are barbed, making it difficult to pull an attached tick off its host. Additionally, the tick produces a glue-like substance that helps hold its mouthparts in place on the host. The most common tick-transmitted disease found in North Dakota is Lyme disease, which is transmitted by the deer tick, Ixodes scapularis. The CDC estimates that in most cases a tick must be attached for 36-48 hours before the bacterium that causes Lyme disease is transmitted to its host, giving people ample time to discover and remove ticks before contracting disease.
The easiest way to avoid tickborne diseases is to prevent ticks from attaching and biting. When weather allows, this can begin before leaving your home by choosing pants, long sleeves, and socks to cover your skin. Tucking your pants into socks and shirt into pants can further prevent ticks from accessing skin. Insect repellent can be applied directly to clothing or skin to deter ticks from crawling on you and attaching. If you are planning on being outside for longer than several hours, stop and perform tick checks every two hours and remove any that are found on your clothing or gear. Ticks are most often found around soft skin and hairlines and may be difficult to see due to their small size, particularly the nymphal stage of the deer tick, Ixodes scapularis, which can be the size of a poppy seed. Ask for help checking around your scalp, neck, and ears. When hiking, camping, or engaging in outdoor activities, stay on paths and roads and avoid overgrown brushy areas. Remember to reapply insect repellent at regular intervals in accordance with label instructions.
If you do find a tick on you, remove it as soon as possible. Do not attempt to use ‘home remedies’ such as petroleum jelly, cleaning solutions or matches. Instead, use tweezers to grasp the tick as close to your skin as possible and pull firmly up. Do not twist or jerk the tick as this can cause mouthparts to break off in the skin. Wash the affected area and your hands with soap and water. If you suspect the tick has been attached for several hours, make a note of the tick bite on a calendar, and watch yourself closely for signs and symptoms of disease. It is important to note that signs and symptoms can take days or weeks to develop, and that being tested for tickborne diseases within the first week after a tick bite may not produce accurate results.
To further prevent exposure, regularly check pets for ticks and speak to your veterinarian about putting your pet on a flea/tick medication during summer months. Lastly, keep lawns trimmed and remove leaf litter from around your home to discourage ticks from seeking harborage near your home.
If you have additional questions concerning ticks, please check out the North Dakota Department of Health website at Tickborne Diseases | Department of Health (nd.gov) or the CDC website at Ticks | CDC. If you find an unusual looking tick this summer, you can use the link on the Department of Health website to submit a picture of it for identification.