If there was ever a pest that’s more hated than mosquitoes, it is probably ticks. Like mosquitoes, ticks feed on the blood of a host, but unlike mosquitoes, ticks bite deeply and stay attached for days before they drop off. If that’s not enough reason to dislike them, a recent CDC study shows that vector-borne insect diseases, including those from ticks, increased by more than 300 percent from 2004 to 2016, and a citizen-science research project that was coordinated by the Bay Area Lyme Foundation and recently published in the journal PLOS, reported that several tick species that are capable of transmitting Lyme disease and other illnesses were found in 83 U.S. counties where they had not previously been found.
Just thinking about ticks is enough to make anyone considering taking a hike in the woods to say, ‘Give me the controller — Let’s see what’s on TV instead.’
What Are Ticks?
Ticks are eight-legged arachnids in the class with spiders, not insects. In the United States, there are about 80 species of hard-shell and 10 soft-shell ticks. Most people are likely to encounter the more common species, namely the American Dog tick; the Lone Star tick, sometimes called seed ticks; the Blacklegged tick, frequently called Deer ticks; and the Brown Dog tick. Depending on the species and their stage of development, ticks may be active during all warm seasons.
Ticks feed on the blood of a vertebrate host — deer, dogs, mice or even birds and reptiles. After hatching from an egg, the tick larva, which may be no bigger than a grain of sand, finds a host to feed on. After feeding, they drop off, molt to nymphs, and feed again. Nymphs then molt to adults that seek the blood of a new host. Because they feed on different hosts at each stage, they may pick up disease-causing pathogens that they then transmit to the next host they feed on. After the adult female feeds, she drops off and lays up to 5,000 eggs, and the cycle begins again. Some ticks may take up to three years to complete this cycle, others do so in a matter of months.
What Are the Dangers?
According to the Tick Encounter Resource Center of Rhode Island University, Blacklegged ticks (Deer ticks) are most likely to carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Recent studies have shown that up to 50 percent of Deer ticks carry the Lyme disease-causing bacteria. Lyme disease symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue and joint pain, but in only about 40 percent of cases is there the characteristic “bullseye” rash at the site of the bite. The Blacklegged tick, which is present throughout the East, has expanded more recently into the upper Midwest and far West.
Scientists and ecologists speculate that there are several reasons tick-borne vector diseases are increasing and disease-carrying ticks are expanding their range. Two probable causes are higher annual temperatures because of climate change and changing patterns of animal migration. Ticks are expanding into areas where they were never present before due to the explosive spread of white-tail deer and expanding human travel patterns.
In recent years, the dangers from ticks have grown dramatically because they are more likely to carry organisms that can infect humans with any number of nasty diseases in addition to Lyme disease, such as Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness (STARI), which can produce a life-long allergic reaction to red meat (you’ll never eat a burger or steak again if you get it), Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Powassan, Babesiosis, Anaplasmosis, Tularemia and other really awful diseases and conditions you don’t want to get, ever.
What You Can Do to Prevent Tick Bites
Park and recreation agencies can play a vital role in educating park visitors and equipping their staff with knowledge about the hazards of tick-borne diseases and how to avoid them. Matt Graul, chief of stewardship for the East Bay Regional Park District in the San Francisco Bay area, says they take tick education and prevention very seriously. With the spread of Lyme disease to the Northwest, public park agencies have begun to institute awareness measures for the public. Graul says, “We developed a tick bite protocol for staff, and we conduct training and education for the full-time and seasonal EPRD staff.” In addition, they also distribute tick removal kits to staff who request them. He notes they post signs for the public in park areas that are known for possible tick exposure.
Chris Matthews, division director of nature preserves and natural resources of Mecklenburg County parks and recreation in North Carolina, notes that, “We do instruct camp counselors and leaders to avoid areas that are known for high probability of tick exposure.” The agency also provides annual safety training, which covers insect hazards, and issues long-sleeved clothing and insect repellent for employees who wish to use them.
In areas of high-tick infestation, park and rec agencies should keep trails well-trimmed overhead and back from the edges of paths. There are some pesticides, such as Permethrin, and biological controls, such as nematodes, that may be considered in concert with an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program in high public-use areas.
You can personally avoid exposure to ticks by taking some simple precautions.
While DEET is the active chemical in most spray or spread-on-skin repellents for mosquitoes and ticks, some people don’t like to use it because of its objectionable properties of staining fabrics and irritating skin and the potential health effects of high concentrations (more than 20 percent concentration) and use on children. There are other, safer alternatives, such as oil of lemon eucalyptus in REPEL, for example, which a Consumer Reports study recently ranked as being just as effective as DEET.
Spray-on insect repellents may not work as effectively for ticks, since depending on where ticks get onto your body, they can potentially avoid the repellent you apply. There is one tick repellent, Permethrin, that offers outstanding protection when sprayed on clothes and shoes and it is easy to use. Permethrin, which must be ONLY sprayed on clothes, NOT on skin, repels ticks effectively and will last through four to six clothes washings. There are also companies that will pre-treat your own clothing with Permethrin if you mail it to them, and treatments are good for up to 70 washings. Note: There are different formulations for Permethrin, including for garden use and for agricultural use. Use only the formulation for personal protection.
Ticks tend to crawl up and that is why you should take extra precautions with your shoes and socks if you are going to be walking off the trail or in leaf litter. A University of Rhode Island study found that individuals who wore shoes and socks treated with Permethrin were 74 times less likely to have a tick bite than those not wearing treated shoes and socks. One common precautionary measure often suggested is to tuck your pants in your socks, but this has the unfortunate unintended effect of making you feel like a dork. Still, if you are wearing socks, tuck pants into them. The protection factor is worth it.
Be aware of where you might be likely to get a tick on you. Ticks don’t lie in wait and then jump on you like some super flea. They do ‘quest’ as they wait for hosts and they are more likely to get on you as you walk through tall grass or leaf litter or as your head and shoulders brush against hanging branches. Wear a hat if you are walking in a forest and plan your route as you walk. Stay out of tall grass if you can find a route around it.
Check yourself externally as soon as you finish walking through these environments. This applies to dogs as well. Be alert to where they run and check them carefully when you return home or after they have been outdoors. Don’t depend solely on chemical repellents for your dog or yourself.
If a tick becomes attached, remove it with sharp tweezers. See CDC’s webpages for how to properly remove an attached tick.
An excellent guide to tick encounters and preventative measures you can take is the TickEncounter Resource Center of the University of Rhode Island. A second, more in-depth review is tick prevention strategies and repellents.
Don’t be afraid to work or recreate outdoors. Yes, ticks are out there, but you can avoid them by taking precautions and being alert and aware.
Richard Dolesh is NRPA’s VP of Strategic Initiatives