Tick season is in full swing, and with it comes the health problems of Lyme disease and spotted fever that they spread. It is therefore wise to “know thy enemy.”
If you remember your science class, ticks are not insects, but arthropods, having eight legs. They are brown with flat oval shaped, hard bodies. They tend to move slower than most insects and are easy to catch. If you can’t squeeze the life out of it between your fingers, chances are good it’s a tick. The most common type in our area is the dog tick, but deer and lone star ticks can also be found, or I should say can find you.
The life cycle of ticks demonstrates their amazing design for survival. They hatch from eggs and go through three stages of growth: nymph (too small to see), larva (visible but small) and adult. During each of these stages, a tick must have a blood meal before growing into the next stage. Since ticks are slow and cannot fly, they rarely move more than a few yards away from where they hatch, so eating requires patience. They crawl out on the ends of blades of grass or brush and wait… and wait… and wait. They can wait for months by going into a semi-dormancy where they use very little energy. To prevent them from sleeping through a contact with a potential meal, ticks have an extremely sensitive and rapid response to carbon dioxide, the stuff all mammals exhale. When they catch a whiff of carbon dioxide, the dormant tick becomes instantly activated and crawls rapidly onto anything that brushes by.
To feed, ticks bury the front part of their head into your skin. Sounds like it should hurt, but ticks don’t want to be found, so they are able to anesthetize the area before they begin feeding. Ticks literally gorge themselves on blood, and their bodies will swell up and become a gray-blue color.
Fertilization of the female takes place while she is still attached to the host. After she drops to the ground she will lay 4,000 to 6, 500 eggs, which will then hatch seven to 14 days later.
The Center of Disease Control recommends the following method for removing an attached tick from your skin:
Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible. Pull upward with steady, even pressure, being sure not to twist or jerk the tick, as this could cause the mouth-part to break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, remove the mouth part with tweezers if possible. If you can’t, leave it alone and let the skin heal.
After removal of the tick, clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water. If you develop a rash or fever within several weeks of removing a tick, see your doctor.
Steve Roark is the Area Forester in Tazewell, Tenn. for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division.