Who am I to teach you about ticks?
I'm not an entomologist or public health official, but my own struggles with Lyme's Disease have made this topic extremely relevant in my life. And as a former Master Gardener I've been educated on how to protect myself from tick bites, in addition to having logged over 100 volunteer hours doing tick identification for Ocean County. So while I make no claims of being an expert, I'm comfortable sharing a few things that I've learned.
I think it's also fair to warn you that I'm not an advocate of spraying bug spray all over my body to keep ticks at bay. If I were going deep into the woods or camping I may consider it, but spraying pesticides on myself (or my child) is just not something that I'm comfortable with. Instead, we keep ourselves safe by avoiding high-risk areas, doing tick checks after possible exposure, and getting suspicious ticks tested. And despite my history with Lyme's Disease I'm totally comfortable hiking on trails through the woods without being stressed out about ticks. Why? Because I no longer believe these myths.
If you're squeamish just stick with me. Don't be one of those people who's so freaked out that you avoid the subject and continue to live in fear. Suck it up and continue reading. You'll see that ticks aren't nearly as scary as you might think.
Eleven Myths About Ticks — Debunked.
Myth #1 — You only find ticks in the woods.
Your chance of coming into contact with ticks is very high in wooded areas but that's not the only place you'll come in contact with them. Birds and mice can carry them into your back yard and pets can pick them up on their fur. We've even picked up a tick from sitting on a park bench and another time a tick hitched a ride into the house on my husband's shoe after a round of golf.
However — since you can find ticks just about anywhere, people assume that they'll live anywhere. But that's just not the case. Ticks can't survive in a hot, dry climate. They need cool, humid conditions to thrive. Which makes the forest floor and low brush here in the Northeast so ideal.
Myth #2 — Ticks can fly.
I promise you ticks can't fly. They don't have wings (or strong legs that can jump for that matter). They come in contact with their host by questing. Which means they climb to the very end of leaves and grass; secure themselves with their back legs, and then hold their front legs open; and then wait for an animal to brush up against them and grab on. That's all they do. They wait. And they keep waiting every day until they're lucky enough to grab onto an unsuspecting host. They just sit there looking like little peacekeepers offering hugs to anyone walking by.
Where's a favorite place for ticks to quest?
The grassy areas along the edge of foot trails for one. So keep to the middle of the path, and avoid brushing against the grass and shrubbery along the edge, and you'll decrease your chances of getting a tick significantly.
You can also find high concentrations of ticks in the underbrush at the edge of a forest or in the brush that borders a field. Again, simply avoiding these areas is going to significantly minimize your chances of coming in contact with a tick.
Golf courses can also provide the perfect habitat for ticks and, depending on your handicap, can offer plenty of opportunity for them to latch on. Do what you can to stay out of the fescue & rough, use tick repellent if necessary, and be sure to check for ticks periodically throughout your round and afterward.
If you're curious I offer this experiment: take an old white towel and brush it against the foliage in one of these areas (being careful to protect yourself in the process) and count how many ticks grab hold. Just be sure to throw the towel out when you're done.
Myth #3 — Ticks are blood thirsty, aggressive little creatures.
Truth be told, a tick will only feed a few times in its life. Ticks go through four stages of development to complete their life cycle and they need a blood meal in order to advance to each stage (the blood is fuel for their transformation). This process can take up to three years, which translates into one blood meal every nine months. So they're really not the crazed vampires some people think. And you can also be comforted by the fact that most ticks die because they were unable to get the blood meals necessary to mature into an adult.
Myth #4 — Humans are their favorite host.
Not to burst your bubble or anything, but ticks are really non-selective when it comes to choosing a host. Mammals and birds — even reptiles and amphibians — will do. It all comes down to availability and access. For example, ticks in their larva stage live on the forest floor, so mice are a host of choice for this stage (mice are low to the ground, digging in the forest litter where the larva have access). Whereas ticks in the nymph stage quest on grasses and brush so they come in contact with more birds and deer. It's really not a matter of preference that the tick has chosen you (although I'm sure you're quite tasty!) it's completely circumstantial and opportunistic. Sorry.
Myth #5 — I'll obviously see and/or feel if I have a tick on me.
Except in the case of dog ticks, which tend to crawl faster and stamp their feet, you probably won't feel a tick on your body. They're just so small and slow that chances are you won't even notice. Once a tick is attached sometimes your skin can itch at the site, but not always. They also prefer to feed in dark, moist places (armpit, groin, scalp, etc) or behind the knees and ears — which admittedly can make things tricky if you don't have a buddy around to help you check for them. Always do a full body check after possible tick exposure. Grab a partner, a flashlight, and a magnifying glass if you have to, but don't just blow it off. And don't be afraid to ask your doctor for help if you need to. Finding the tick that bit you can get you the treatment you need or eliminate the need for treatment entirely.
Myth #6 — If I find a tick on me I should kill it.
It's really important that you fight your instincts on this one. You want to remove the tick intact and keep it alive. I know it sounds creepy but hear me out.
You'll want to know what kind of tick it is and an intact tick makes identification so much easier (it can be done with just parts, but it can be extremely challenging). Why would you want to know what type of tick it is? Because different species of ticks carry different pathogens. And knowing which pathogens you may have been exposed to will help with treatment should you become sick.
You'll also want to know what stage the tick is in. A tick's risk of exposure increases with each blood meal so this information can be an important part in assessing your own risk of infection.
And lastly, the tick itself can be tested to see if it's carrying any pathogens. This step can help you get the proper treatment necessary if the tick tests positive for a pathogen; or can help you avoid unnecessary treatment if the tick tests negative. And the most accurate (and least expensive) tests are performed on live ticks. In some cases even dead or partial ticks can be tested — but the testing is much more expensive and may be less accurate. So it's really in your best interest to keep the tick alive and intact whenever possible.
So how do you do that?
After carefully removing the tick (by getting as close to the skin as possible, and gently backing it out without squeezing its body) place it in a small ziplock bag with a tiny piece of damp paper towel. Seal it up, clearly label it, and stick it in your fridge. Seriously. Here's why: the moist paper towel will keep the tick from drying out, the cold temperature will slow down the tick's metabolism significantly (so much so that it may appear to be dead), and the clear bag will help the person identifying or testing the tick to find the tick in the bag. Added bonus: by following this procedure the tick will remain alive for a few days, giving you time to find tick ID and testing options in your area without panicking.
Myth #7 — If a tick bites me I'll get Lyme's Disease.
Remember, not all ticks even carry Lyme's Disease (see Myth #6 ). Also, an infected tick needs 24 hours to feed before it can transmit Lyme's. So if you do a thorough tick check after being in a high risk area and safely remove any ticks within a few hours of exposure — chances are you'll be okay. But have the tick itself tested if you have any doubts.
Myth #8 — The best way to remove a tick is to burn it off with a match.
I'll give you three good reasons why this is a bad idea:
- If you do it while it's on your body you run the risk of getting burned yourself.
- It's likely to make the tick regurgitate the contents of its stomach directly into your skin — including any infectious pathogens it may carry.
- Burning the tick can make it challenging to test the tick.
Some other 'smother' techniques to avoid: rubbing alcohol, vaseline, and nail polish remover. These can also cause the tick to regurgitate it's stomach contents into your body — including the pathogen for Lyme's Disease.
Myth #9 — Eek! The tick's gonna jump or drop off when I try to remove it!
If you discover a tick that hasn't had the chance to really latch on yet, it's going to be a little more active. That said — it's still not going to jump or make any sudden moves. It may flail its legs in a panic to keep itself attached (that tick has been waiting a long time for a host!) but it's not looking to run and hide so it can get you another day. So stay calm. But do take the extra precaution of placing something white (like a towel) underneath the area you're working on, so if by chance you should drop the tick after removing it you can find it again without panicking.
On the other hand — if the tick has been there a while and is engorged — it may not even show signs of life when you try to pull it out. It'll be bloated, blissed out, and completely oblivious to what's going on. It's important to keep in mind that fully engorged ticks may drop off as a defense, so definitely work over a white towel or other surface that would make it easy to find.
Myth #10 — Always pull a tick straight out.
This one falls under the true/not true category. So here's the deal: a tick's mouthparts consist of two long, straight "teeth." The tick will slowly crisscross these "teeth" into your skin to secure its body, reach a source of blood, and begin feeding. So when removing a tick it's very important to back those "teeth" out at the same angle they're entering your skin — otherwise the mouthparts can break off, remain in your skin and cause infection. So yes, you want to pull a tick straight out in the sense of keeping those mouthparts intact, but straight out doesn't always mean straight up. Check the angle and back the tick out accordingly.
Myth #11 – Drowning a tick will kill it.
Please don't think swimming in the pool will kill a tick that's latched onto you. Those little suckers can survive a long time underwater — whether it's the ocean, a chlorinated pool, or a spin in the washing machine. But what does kill them is dry heat at high temperatures. So after visiting a high-risk area, you'll want to wash and dry your clothes on high heat to kill any ticks that you may have picked up on your clothes (if you don't have time for that, throw your clothes directly in the dryer for 5-10 minutes and wash them later).
So there you go.
Was it as painful as you thought?
Now that you understand ticks a little better you can release some of that fear you've been carrying around. Maybe even enjoy the park again. Even relax a little knowing that unless you're a hunter, landscaper, or camper you may not need to strictly follow the standard guidelines of tucking your bug spray-covered pants into your socks to stay safe. Moving forward, I know I can count on you to...
- Keep away from the brush.
- Stay in the middle of the trail.
- Do thorough tick checks.
- Remove the tick correctly.
- Get any ticks ID'd and tested.
And enjoy the rest of your summer. May we all be tick free!
P.S. Know somebody else who's squeamish or needs this information? Feel free to forward this to a friend or post on social media.
If you'd like more information on removing ticks, their life cycles, or the seasons they're most active, here are links to my sources for this post: