For many of us, the arrival of spring means finally being able to once again enjoy being outdoors. For ticks, those tiny bloodsucking insects which are the bane of an outdoor-lover’s existence, it also means ‘dinner is served.’
Here’s what you need to know to protect yourself, your family and pets from their bites and the diseases they can cause.
Ticks are tiny parasitic members of the spider (arachnid) family that attach themselves to and feed on the blood of animals, birds and humans. Ticks are most commonly found in woods and other areas with heavy vegetation, where they hide in the fur and feathers of wildlife, and are easily transferable to humans and pets.
Although not all ticks carry infections or spread diseases, a tick’s bite can carry the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium of Lyme disease and the rarer protozoic infection of babesiosis, caused by deer ticks (also known as black-legged ticks). While seldom fatal to healthy individuals, these illnesses can cause serious complications for the elderly, very young and those whose immune systems are impaired.
In addition to Lyme disease and babesiosis, other tick-borne illnesses include Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Colorado tick fever, tularemia and ehrlichiosis. The black-legged tick or deer tick is most prevalent in the northeast and north-central parts of the US, with the western black-legged tick more common to the Pacific area.
When going outside, be sure to wear long sleeves, closed-toe shoes and long pants when entering a woods or other area of heavy vegetation. Try to stay on open trails and avoid walking through forested undergrowth, tall grass or similar vegetation. Use a tick spray with DEET – many commercial mosquito repellents also repel ticks. If you or your pets have been outdoors, especially if in the woods, be sure to thoroughly inspect your clothes and body for signs of ticks.
Consider your yard’s landscaping: keep vegetation, such as piles of leaves or sticks, and other tick habitats away from decks, patios, play areas and other areas frequented by your family or pets.
Ticks can be found almost everywhere, but are most prevalent in the New England, mid-Atlantic and upper Midwestern parts of the US, where the risk of contracting Lyme disease is greatest.
While almost any animal, including humans, can be a carrier, deer and mice are most often affected, and are more likely to transmit ticks to humans or pets. You cannot ‘catch’ Lyme disease or another tick-borne illness directly from an infected animal or person, however, and it is not spread by mosquitoes, flies or fleas.
Ticks usually lurk in the following bodily areas:
If you find a tick on your clothes, skin or on your pet, you should remove it immediately. Carefully grasping the tick’s head (usually the part closest to your skin) with a fine tweezers, pulling it straight out then washing the bite area with soap and water is usually all that is needed.