There are few insects that inspire as much loathing as the tick. Aside from the almost primal aversion we all share to these blood sucking critters, these insects actually pose a serious public health danger. No discussion about the nuisance posed by pests would be complete without mentioning these creepy crawlers, and we owe it to ourselves to stay abreast of the information on how to manage their risk. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the topic, ticks are tiny parasitic arachnids that feed on the blood of humans and other animals. Although there is some variance in size and appearance between tick species, they are roughly the size of a sesame seed and adults are always eight-legged.
As creepy a picture as this already is, the situation becomes even more disturbing when it is taken into account that they are the vectors for several dangerous diseases. On Long Island Lyme disease is among the most serious and widespread disease that can be spread by ticks. The disease causes flu-like symptoms and 60-80% of cases are marked by a distinctive “bulls eye” pattern rash. Although Lyme disease is a treatable condition, it is not always diagnosed right away. If not properly treated Lyme disease can lead to serious long term health complications such as arthritis, neurological and cardiac issues. Since it is possible for an infection to go undetected, it is crucial to focus on prevention and avoid being bitten by ticks altogether if possible. For this reason it is prudent to take the time to learn some of the habits and behaviors of ticks so as to be better prepared.
As a rule, ticks do not jump or move very fast. They are, however, expert climbers. Their strategy for encountering prey is to clamber onto the top of tall grass, shrubs, or in areas with dense underbrush and simply perch there waiting with arms outstretched for something to walk by. As a human, deer, dog, or other mammal brushes past them, they latch on and hitch a ride. Although ticks can also be found on the ground, some types of ticks will not even crawl in the direction of prey. Once ticks do find a host they do not bite right away. On humans, they are known to crawl around for long periods of time looking for the ideal spot to feed. Most commonly this will be folds in the skin or other tucked away creases where the skin may be thinner. Examples of this would be behind the knees, the groin, armpits, the hairline, or behind the ears. Ticks feed until they become engorged before detaching themselves. The whole process is time consuming, and there is no threat of the tick biting the instant it latches on such as a mosquito or flea would. Several hours can pass between the time a tick first encounters a host and when it begins feeding.
One of the best ways to prevent tick bites is to avoid walking in tall grass altogether. While hiking or walking in the woods stay towards the center of the path and avoid brushing up against outlying vegetation. Stay on the trail and do not venture off into the woods where ticks may be lying in wait. Wearing light colors will make it easier to spot any ticks that may be crawling on top of clothing. Since ticks are frequently found in grass or on the ground, when spraying repellent it is best to focus on the lower body. DEET has been proven very effective, but natural chemical-free repellents such as plant-based Lemon Eucalyptus are a good alternative. Immediately following exposure to tick habitats, it is advisable to perform a thorough self-check for ticks focusing on the areas of the body that were mentioned earlier in this article. A quick shower is the most effective way to wash off any ticks before they sink their teeth in.
Should any embedded ticks be discovered, there is no need to panic. Of the 4 tick species prevalent on Long Island not all of them can carry Lyme disease at all and even among those that do (such as deer ticks) not every individual tick will be infected. In the event of a bite, studies have shown that in order to transmit disease an infected tick would first have to feed off its host uninterrupted for about 24 hours. Even then many tick borne diseases are treatable with antibiotics if diagnosed early. Bites often go undetected because in the early stages of a tick’s development they are very small and they typically cannot be felt crawling on the skin. This demonstrates the importance of active prevention through self-checks. If an embedded tick is discovered during a check do not under any circumstances attempt to remove it by using petroleum jelly or any other cream to massage it out. This can lead to infection. Hastily ripping off the tick can cause parts of the tick’s jaws to detach and remain embedded beneath the skin, which can also lead to infection. Still worse is the possibility that an improperly removed tick can regurgitate back into the host’s bloodstream during its extraction. The best option is to use a pair of tweezers to gently pull straight back on the embedded head or jaws of the tick, and coax it out. If no tweezers are available the same can be accomplished using a stiff piece of paper or a fingernail. Once the tick is removed it would be wise to save it in a plastic bag for later identification.
Although tick populations are on the rise and Lyme disease is becoming more widespread than ever before, a greater understanding and awareness of ticks and their behavior will reveal that there is no cause for alarm. The dangers of biting insects are frequently “hyped up” in overblown news reports, but understanding a few simple facts about the reality of these insects enables anyone to go out and enjoy the outdoors without having any irrational fears or worries. Although there are certainly real dangers posed by parasitic ticks, by following a few simple steps it is possible to protect oneself and dramatically reduce the risk.