Q&A With a Tick
By Sheryl Kraft
Each year, about 300,000 people in the United States will catch Lyme disease. Here's how to not be one of them.
Ticks may be tiny, but don't let their diminutive stature fool you: they can prove to be powerful foes.
Although most tick bites aren't harmful, disease does lurk within these insects, scientifically classified as Arachnida, a group that also includes spiders.
And since the weather is heating up, it's time to be aware of ticks and the havoc they can wreak.
So, just like last year when I captured and pinned down a mosquito for an honest account from its perspective, I've decided it's time I did the same with a tick. At first I thought I was picking up a poppy seed, but as soon as I realized it was a tick, I took the opportunity to hold it captive for a bit and get the inside scoop.
Q. I understand there's not just one type of tick. Can you explain?
A. We come from two families; there are hard ticks and soft ticks. And just like in your families, within each of our own families are differences. We have many species and varieties: 800, in fact.
Q. What's the difference between a hard and soft tick?
A. A hard tick is just that; we have a tough back plate on the outside. At our smallest, we're usually known as "seed ticks" because we look like little plant seeds. But despite our teeny size, we're really skilled at attaching and feeding off of humans or animals for hours or even days at a time. Once we get our fill (of blood), if we're infected with disease, that's when usually share it with our host. (We've been taught good manners—what can I say?)
On the other hand, there are those of us with more rounded bodies; we're known as soft ticks. Man, those soft ticks are quick and clever. They eat really fast (usually in under an hour) and can pass disease onto their (usually unsuspecting) host very quickly—oftentimes in less than a mere minute.
Q. How do you operate? Give us an idea of a day in the life of a tick.
A. We're always game for a free ride (and a good meal!). Mice, birds, deer and other large mammals are pretty mobile, so we jump on the opportunity to travel and explore new territories. Actually, I wouldn't technically call it jumping—rather reaching out with our legs and grabbing or crawling onto our generous and unknowing host.
And when it comes to food, we're not all that picky. We'll get our meals where we can, and that includes snakes, amphibians, birds and, of course, mammals.
Q. Will a human feel your bite?
A. Sometimes we're very gentle and you don't even know we've visited. Other times—and this is more common with soft ticks—we can produce intensely painful reactions. Like I am fond of saying: never underestimate the power of a tick.
Q. I get the message … you are skilled at being stealth-like. OK, so now what? How would someone even know you've bitten them?
A. We may finish our meal and then fall off your skin, never to be found again. But here's the clue: later, we infected ticks may leave our mark.
Q. And what would that be?
A. Usually (but not always), the first sign will be a rash, appearing one to two weeks after we transmit Lyme disease to you. The rash usually (but not always) will radiate from the site of the bite. It can look solid red or can be a central spot that is surrounded by clear skin, which is ringed by an expanding red rash (that's the bull's-eye look). Its diameter is about five to six inches, and it stays around for about three to five weeks.
The bite site may be itchy, or it may burn and turn red. Sometimes, though rarely, people may feel a localized intense pain. (You can thank those soft ticks for that.)
Some people are particularly sensitive or allergic to our bites. They may develop a rash; get shortness of breath, swelling or numbness or even paralysis.
But rest assured: the majority of people never develop symptoms; in fact, they do not even remember being bitten.
Q. Do all ticks spread Lyme disease?
A. Nope. Although many ticks can catch Lyme disease, the only ones able to transmit it are the species known as the "deer tick."
Q. How long does it take to spread the disease?
A. According to studies, if we're infected, we normally need to be attached to you for about 36 to 48 hours to infect you.
Q. Considering that, I'd say that the best defense is timing—that is, we should act fast.
A. Certainly. That's why you're told to check yourself at least once a day—this way you might catch us before we've had enough time to infect you. But keep in mind that once we become engorged with blood, it may be too late; we've been feasting for a while.
Q. Are there certain areas of our bodies we should check?
A. I'd say the whole body. But I'll let you in on a secret—we're especially fond of body creases, like in the armpit, groin, back of the knee and nape of your neck.
Q. Can you give us a quick rundown of the manifestation of Lyme disease?
A. If there is a rash—and remember, there's not always one—there will be, around the same time, other symptoms like joint pains, chills, fever and fatigue. These may not be serious enough to require medical attention, and they may be brief. Sometimes, the early symptoms of Lyme disease are so mild that they can easily be overlooked.
Q. And then what?
A. As the disease spreads through your body, there can be other symptoms, like severe fatigue, a stiff or aching neck or tingling or numbness in your extremities. Some people may even experience facial palsy or paralysis.
Q. Do the symptoms get worse?
A. They can, especially if you don't detect—or you ignore—early symptoms. Sometimes weeks, months or even years after we bite you, you can get potentially debilitating symptoms signaling late-stage Lyme disease. These include severe headaches, painful arthritis and joint swelling, cardiac abnormalities and even cognitive disorders.
Q. What about tests and treatments for Lyme disease?
A. Early treatment—within the first few weeks after the initial infection—almost always results in a full cure. The longer you wait, though, the more likely the cure rate will be decreased.
There are three oral antibiotics that are recommended. They are doxycycline, amoxicillin and ceftin.
But treatment's not my expertise. I know all about how to hitch a ride, bite and feed, but I can't tell you everything you need to know about what to do once I've struck.
Q. Where would someone go for more information?
A. Here's more complete information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I hear that's a pretty reliable source for you humans. It will give you more complete information than I can about Lyme disease.
But I'll tell you one thing I know for sure: the best offense is a good defense (my fellow ticks might not like that I'm telling you this, but I feel it's my duty):
- We don't like the insecticide permethrin, which is found in antimalarial bed nets. (You can purchase clothing, socks and shoes treated with it.)
- Counter to what some people think, the bug spray chemical DEET isn't of much use against us.
- Even if you don't camp or hike, you can still come in contact with us simply by being outside or gardening—very risky activities.
- We love humidity and need it to survive, so to limit meeting up with us, avoid leaf piles in shady, humid areas.
- You can use landscaping that deters mice, deer, woodchucks and other rodents we like to ride on. Things like leaf piles, shrubs and groundcover near your house give us the perfect excuse to move closer to you.
- Check your dogs. Although dog ticks don't usually harbor diseases that will make you sick, there is a tick—the lone star tick—that will hitch a ride onto your dog or cat and gladly enter your home.
- If you cover up, we can't easily latch on, so tuck your pants into your socks (who cares if you looks funny?) and try to stay covered with long sleeves and pants, especially when you're out gardening.
- If you wear light clothing, it'll be easier to spot us.
- If you do spot us, remove us with a fine-tipped tweezers. Grasp us as close to the surface of your skin as possible and pull upward with a steady, even pressure. If you twist or jerk us, parts of our mouths can break off and stay in your skin. Some people use remedies like painting us with nail polish or petroleum jelly to get us to unlatch. Remember, the trick is to get rid of us as quickly as possible!
You may also want to read:
Lyme Disease: How to Avoid It and How to Spot It
Mosquito-Borne Illnesses: What They Are and How to Prevent Them
Outdoor Food Safety: Don't Let Spoiled Dishes Ruin Your Barbecue