Ticks can carry a great number of diseases, the most well-known of which being Lyme disease which is transferred via bacteria in their bite. What can we do to prevent them biting and, should the worst happen, how do we remove them?
As many as 30,000 new cases of Lyme disease are reported each year.1 Other tickborne diseases include relapsing fever, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, human babesiosis, Texas cattle fever and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
Most ticks do not carry any diseases, but if you, your family or your pet spends significant amounts of time amongst nature, it is essential that you have some basic knowledge of how to deal with ticks to ensure your family remains safe.
This article aims to give you the basics you need to know to avoid getting bitten in the first place and what to do if you are bitten.
Contents of this article:
You will see introductions at the end of some sections to any recent developments that have been covered by MNT’s news stories. Also look out for links to information about related conditions.
Fast facts on ticks
Here are some key points about ticks and their removal. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
- Ticks are related to spiders, scorpions and mites.
- When a tick bites a host, it releases a cement-like compound into the skin to aid its attachment.
- Most pathogens are not transmitted until the tick has been attached for 24 hours.
- As many as 30,000 new cases of Lyme disease are reported each year.
- Ticks will take blood from most warm-blooded animals they come into contact with.
- There are almost 900 species of tick (more than 90 of which live in the US).
- Ticks find their hosts by detecting breath and body odors, or by sensing body heat, moisture and vibrations.
What are ticks?
Ticks are widely distributed across the world and are responsible for spreading numerous diseases.
Ticks are small, bloodsucking arthropods that are related to spiders, scorpions and mites. Most mites have a preferred host – deer, for instance – but many will take human or dog blood if the opportunity arises.
The tick is widely distributed throughout the world and often thrives. They have very few parasites or predators, a high reproductive potential, can live for years and have a wide variety of host animals. 2
Ticks have four stages in their life-cycle: egg, larva, nymph and adult. It is the nymph stage that is most likely to bite; at this point in their lives, some species can be as small as the full stops on this page. 3
Where are ticks most likely to be found?
Ticks need moisture in the air to complete their life cycle, so water is an essential part of their environment. They also favor warmer regions because cold inhibits their change from egg to larva.
In short, all the tick requires to flourish is warm moist air and an animal to feed on. Any wooded area with a wealth of plants and animals is likely to be a hot spot for ticks.
How to prevent tick bites
Avoid initial contact:
- Avoid wooded areas with large amounts of leaf litter
- Stick to the center of paths
- Wear long trousers tucked into your boots and a long sleeved top.
- Use repellents that contain 20-30% DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide) on any exposed skin (avoid getting repellent in the mouth or eyes)
- Clothing and camping equipment can be treated with permethrin to offer a long-lasting repellent
- Citronella is useful as an additional protective barrier to be used in conjunction with other products.4
How to check for ticks
The following procedure is best practice after time spent outdoors in areas popular with ticks:
- Bathe or shower as soon as you get in – this will help wash off any less securely bonded ticks and help you spot any others
- After showering, stand in front of a mirror and conduct a whole body search
- Closely investigate pets and any other outdoor gear you were using
- Place your clothing in a dryer on a high heat for an hour to destroy any remaining ticks.
If, despite your best efforts, you do find a tick on your skin (or your pet or child), the quicker it is removed, the better.
Most pathogens contained within the tick, including the one that causes Lyme disease (Borrelia burgdorferi), are not usually transmitted before the tick has been attached for at least 24 hours. However, a few may transmit more quickly.6
- Do not handle the tick: use fine tweezers (not blunt eyebrow tweezers), or if unavailable use gloves
- Hold the tick as close to its mouth parts as possible – these are the parts that are attached to your skin
- Do not squeeze the tick’s distended belly as this could cause fluid from the tick to be squeezed into your body
- Gently pull the tick away from your body – do not twist it as this may snap off the mouth parts which will then remain in your skin
- If the mouth parts of the tick do remain in your skin, try to remove them with the tweezers
- Keep the tick in a dry jar or zipper storage bag in case later identification is needed
- Lastly, wash your hands and the area of the bite with warm soapy water. You may want to use an antibiotic ointment on the area as a last barrier of protection.
You may be surprised at how well the tick is attached. This firm grip is thanks to two mechanisms: the embedded mouthparts include a barbed protuberance called a hypostome. Ticks also release a cement-like substance to improve their hold.
If you can’t remove the tick, be sure to contact your doctor.
Some ticks are so small it is difficult to see them. This makes it hard to tell if you have removed the tick’s head. If you cannot see any obvious parts of the head, assume you have removed the entirety of the tick.
The mouthparts being left in the skin will not increase the likelihood of bacterial infection but may increase your chances of redness, itchiness and skin infection.
If you have a rash, headache, joint pain, fever, or flu-like symptoms, this could signal an illness related to a tick bite. If you have any of these symptoms, or the symptoms of a skin infection, call your doctor.
Other specifics to avoid
Smothering the tick with nail polish may cause it to regurgitate fluids into your body.
Do not attempt to smother the tick while it remains in your skin with compounds like petroleum jelly, nail polish, rubbing alcohol or gasoline. Do not attempt to burn the tick while it is embedded in your skin.
Any of the above actions might cause the tick to regurgitate fluids into your body, raising your chance of an infection.
If you do not wish to keep the tick for future reference, make sure it is disposed of sensibly. The body may still contain infected blood, so crushing it could cause this fluid to be released.
Folding the tick into a piece of sticky tape and disposing of it in the trash is the simplest method of dispatch.
Tick removal tools
There are a number of tick removal tools on the market. These can be particularly useful where pets are concerned. Tick removal tools are either hooked or form a small loop. Both are designed to assist you to pull the tick out by the mouthparts without breaking the head parts off.7
Another alternative method of tick removal utilizes cotton. Simply tie a small loop of cotton around the tick’s mouthparts as close to the skin as possible and pull up and out. Do not twist.
Do not despair if you do not have a tick removal tool to hand. Many experts strongly believe that fine-tipped tweezers are perfectly adequate.
Durland Fish, a professor emeritus at the Yale School of Public Health in New Haven, CT, told The Wall Street Journal:
“I’m not convinced that anything will be better than fine-tipped tweezers.”8
On the other hand, Glen R. Needham, an emeritus associate professor of entomology at Ohio State University in Columbus, OH, compared two of the top removal tools in a study published in Wilderness & Environmental Medicine.
He came to the conclusion that they outperformed standard thin-nosed tweezers.9
The take home message is to remove the tick as soon as you can with the best implement you can find and dispose of it appropriately. Seek medical attention if any symptoms worsen.
Recent developments on ticks and Lyme disease from MNT news
Many of us may be taking a final opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors before the weather takes a turn for the worse. But be wary! It is not just humans that are making the most of the warmth.
Tickborne illnesses – such as Lyme disease, Tularemia and Rocky Mountain spotted fever – can be serious and sometimes deadly. They are a major public health problem around the world. Now, a new study reports the discovery in northern China of a tickborne illness in humans that has never been seen before.
Written by Tim Newman