How to Avoid Tick Troubles

Most bugs get a gardener’s attention by chewing vegetable plants, turning leaves brown, or boring into tree trunks. Then there are the few that pose a direct threat to people themselves. High on that list is the tick, a diverse family of insects whose bites are capable of spreading at least 16 different diseases to people – including some that are disabling and potentially fatal.

Gardeners, hikers, and naturalists are at risk of contracting to tick-borne diseases simply because they’re outside more often and active in the same vicinity as ticks.

Since ticks are most active between April and September, now is the season to be especially alert for ticks.

Ticks and tick behavior

The most common ticks – at least the ones most likely to bite and infect people – are hard-shelled little bugs, oval in shape and most often brown or black in color. They have four pairs of legs (eight total) and range in size from the tip of a pencil to slightly larger than a typical tomato seed.

The size and color not only varies from species to species but by the age and activity of the tick as well. For example, the nymph stage of a tick is significantly smaller than the adult size, while even mature adults balloon in size when fully engorged on the blood of a host.

Hard-shelled ticks live primarily in grassy, brushy, or wooded areas, or on animals. They don’t jump or fly onto people and pets. Rather, ticks rest in wait on vegetation with their front legs outstretched in a scenario known as “questing.” When a suitable host passes by, ticks latch on, crawl to bare skin, and insert their feeding tube. People often don’t notice this insertion because a tick’s saliva contains a mild anesthetic.

The trouble with ticks

One or more ticks pose threats to people and pets in all parts of the U.S.

The blacklegged ticks (or deer tick, lxodes scapularis) that cause Lyme Disease and six other infections are widespread throughout the northeastern, mid-Atlantic, and north-central U.S. Lyme disease bacteria is carried by the western blacklegged tick (l. pacificus) in the Pacific Coast states.

The lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum), distinguished by the lone white dot on the female’s back, can carry six different infectious diseases and is primarily a threat in the southeastern and south central U.S.

The brown dog tick (Rhipicephalus sanguineus) is found throughout the U.S. but is the primary cause of Rocky Mountain spotted fever in the southwestern U.S.

Other species cause scattered threats throughout the country.

Symptoms can run the gamut and aren’t always easy to trace to a tick bite. The most common symptoms, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, are rash, fever, chills, headache, muscle pain, joint pain or swelling, and nausea.

When treated quickly, antibiotics head off most tick-borne diseases. Left untreated in sensitive individuals, infections can grow into lasting neurological problems, chronic pain, and liver or heart damage.

How to protect yourself from ticks?

The best anti-tick strategy is to avoid getting bit in the first place. Some tips from the CDC:

  1. Use tick repellents containing 0.5 percent permethrin on shoes and clothing and/or EPA-registered insect repellents containing any of the following: DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, para-menthane-diol, or 2-undecanone.
  2. Wear light-colored outer clothing so you can more easily spots ticks. Tuck shirts into pants and pants into socks.
  3. Avoid wooded and brushy areas with low-growing vegetation and tall grasses. If walking on wooded trails, stay in the middle where you’re farther away from vegetation from which ticks might hitch a ride.
  4. Once inside, take a shower and do a full-body check using a mirror. Pay special attention to the scalp, ears, armpits, belly button, and between the legs. It can take 48 hours for the bacteria to enter your bloodstream once a tick latches on, so these tick checks are crucial to preventing disease.
  5. Check clothing and any outside gear for ticks. Running clothes through the dryer on high heat for at least 10 minutes should kill any latched-on ticks. Also check pets that can bring ticks inside.

Create a tick-safe yard

Take steps to reduce ticks in your landscape by making your yard inhospitable to them. Ticks live in cool, shaded and moist areas.

  • Keep your yard trimmed and remove potential tick habitat areas such as fallen leaves, overgrown plants, weeds and prunings.
  • Mow frequently and trim tall grasses weeds with a string trimmer. Ticks climb to the top of grass blades and wait to latch on to passing humans and animals.
  • Stack wood piles neatly on an elevated surface and
  • Keep outdoor garbage cans and bird feeders secured to discourage rodents
  • Create a dry barrier at the edge of your property with wood chips or gravel to impede the migration of ticks from surrounding trees and brush.

Another line of defense is using insecticides as a barrier around the perimeter of the house, patio, or yard.

How to remove a tick

If you find ticks latched onto the skin, CDC recommends using fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick close to the skin and pull the bug straight up and out. Then thoroughly clean the area with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.

Consider calling your healthcare provider if you live in an area where Lyme or other tick-borne diseases are a concern. Health-care providers can give advice on whether treatment is warranted and also identify the tick if you place it in a sealed bag after removal.

Read more on tick removal from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

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