They jump from trees. They crawl out of the tall grass and onto your unsuspecting socks or shorts only to travel upward toward your pulsing heart, stopping on the way only to bury their heads under your skin to spread their spawn. What on earth are those itchy, inflamed red spots on my leg?!?
For the uninitiated, ticks are very small, hard-to-see eight-legged bugs. They are related to spiders, another type of common arachnid. These tiny blood-suckers come in various colors, from shades of brown to reddish-brown to black. Ticks get bigger as they suck more blood and can get as large as a marble.
Who can forget their first encounter with a wild tic? It’s a harrowing moment I’ll never be able to get out of my mind. I was knee-high to a grasshopper, a mere tadpole, a young summer camper of about 6 years old, when an ancient, wizened counselor – gosh, she must have been at least 15 years old – warned us kids about the dangerous, wily tick.
We listened, horrified, as Tammy described, using graphic hand gestures, how the tick would creep through our leg hairs, tiny and unobserved while we frolicked, innocent and carefree. Then, finding just the right, juicy spot, the mother tick (it was always a pregnant female of the species in these stories) would bite through our tender skin and bury its head under our flesh, sucking our blood and gorging itself.
Adding insult to injury, this nasty little tick would show its appreciation by laying its next generation’s eggs inside our bodies. Ew!
Then she would show us her scars.
Turns out Tammy was mostly right except for the part about the laying of tick eggs. This only happens after the adult female tick has a full tank of blood, as it were, turns a greenish-blue color, and detaches from its host. This takes up to ten days. Ew!
Tammy was nothing if not helpful and shared with us the only good way she knew to remove a tick. “The best thing,” she said, “is if you see the tick before it has buried its leg inside you. Then you can just pick it off with your hand or tweezers.”
But, our sage and experienced mentor warned earnestly, never pull on a tick once its head has submerged beneath the dermal surface “because you can pull the tick’s body right off and leave the head behind, embedded in your skin.” EW!!!
The solution, however, was simple. Light a match, blow it out, and touch it to the tick’s butt (as Tammy called it). The alarmed tick will pull its head out to escape and then you can literally pick it off – head and all. Just be careful not to burn yourself or torch the cabin.
Some adults don’t want kids fooling around with matches and recommend a different way to remove a tick. This method may not remove the entire bug, though. (Ew!)
- Wearing gloves, use clean tweezers to grasp the tick firmly at its head or mouth, next to the skin.
- Pull firmly and steadily until the tick lets go of the skin. Do not twist the tick or rock it from side to side. Some of the tick’s mouthparts might stay in the skin but will be expelled from the body naturally on their own.
- Wash your hands and the site of the bite with soap and water.
- Swab the bite site with alcohol.
- Apply antiseptic and cortisone to the bite area (unless allergic, and cover the wound site with a bandaid.
- Preserve the tick in a trophy container of rubbing alcohol for a professional healthcare provider to identify.
Many medical sources say do not remove a tick with a hot match or petroleum jelly because the tick might regurgitate infected fluids into the wound. Ew! (For the record, no one I ever knew who used a blown-out match got infected. But that’s probably less than 20 people.)
The first line of defense against ticks is staying out of their habitat. But that means no walks in the woods – or maybe even your back yard.
“Deer ticks are not out in the middle of your lawn, they live where yards border wooded areas, ornamental plantings and gardens, or anywhere it is shaded and there are leaves with high humidity.”
The more your yard resembles wildlands the better ticks will like it. So, to make ticks and other insect pests unwelcome, mow the lawn, rake and remove fallen leaves, keep shrubs and low branches trimmed back, and clear border areas, wood piles, stone walls, and shed areas.
Most tick bites are harmless and soon go away but some very dangerous illnesses such as Lyme Disease can be transmitted by these vampiric parasites. Take the following steps to protect yourself and your family from blood-sucking ticks:
- Use a chemical repellent with at least 20% DEET, picaridin, or IR3535
- Wear light-colored protective clothing to help you spot ticks faster
- Tuck pant legs into socks
- Avoid tick-infested areas
- After returning inside from outdoors, shower as soon as possible and check all parts of your body carefully for ticks
- Inspect yourself, your children, and your pets for ticks daily
- Carefully remove any ticks you find as soon as possible
No matter how hard you try, there is a clear and present danger that you will discover a tick violating your personal space if you, your children or your pets ever go outdoors and come back inside. The intruder will go for a warm, moist body area such as your armpits, groin or hair.
People who are allergic to tick bites may show the following symptoms:
- Pain or swelling at the bite site
- Red rash
- Burning sensation at the bite site
- Severe difficulty breathing
Diseases transmitted from a tick bite can cause any of a number of symptoms, normally between several days to a few weeks after the bite, such as:
- Red spot or rash near the bite site
- Full-body rash
- Stiff neck
- Muscle or joint pain or achiness
- Swollen lymph nodes
Don’t let ticks ruin your summertime fun. Knowledge is power and forewarned is forearmed. Those bloodsuckers don’t stand a chance, am I right?