There's a Sucker Born Every Minute
Tips and Tricks for Living with Ticks
By Tamia Nelson
May 17, 2005
I'm just lucky, I guess. I've never knowingly
played host to a tick, despite having spent my whole life exploring
waterways, mountains and fields, in some of the best tick country in North
America. And for a long time I never gave them much thought, either. Not
until Lyme disease hit the headlines, that is. Suddenly, ticks were big
news. They still are. As the world slowly warms up, tick-borne diseases are
being seen in places they haven't been noticed before. Now, with summer
just around the corner and the paddling season well under way, maybe it's
time to get to know the enemy better.
The Nature of the Beast
Ticks are arachnids, near kin to mites, spiders, and scorpions. Seen
from above, a tick looks a lot like a diminutive plastic guitar pick, with
its head at the pointy end ideally located for getting under your
skin. But you'll need to have keen vision to look a tick in the eye. Few
adults grow longer than half an inch, and many are much smaller, down to an
eighth of an inch or even less. They're not flashy dressers, either. Ticks
have learned that it doesn't pay to advertise. Camouflage colors like brown
and blue-black are their usual fashion choice. And where can you expect to
find ticks? Almost everywhere, from the seacoast to the mountains, though
they're particularly fond of brushy and wooded areas. In other words, ticks
hang out in the same places that canoeists and kayakers do, and chances are
good that you'll meet one of these little bloodsuckers up close and
personal someday. That being the case, let's take a look at
What Makes Them Tick
Ticks are out for blood. Your blood. It's nothing personal. It's just
part of their job description. Both males and females need blood to grow up
big and strong. In fact, females can't lay eggs without a blood meal. But
ticks don't spend all their time eating. They get around, spending only a
part of their lives on their hosts. Baby ticks tick larvae
hatch from eggs deposited on tangled grass stalks or similar sheltered
places. And if adult ticks are small, baby ticks are miniscule, no larger
than a grain of sand. They grow up fast, though, heading for the top of the
nearest stalk just as soon as their infant bodies harden in the air. There
they wait patiently with outstretched legs to hitch a ride on the first
warm-blooded creature to pass by. Then, having climbed aboard a suitable
host, they lose no time in locating a good feeding spot and getting stuck
in. Their first meal is a memorable one, often taking days to complete. At
last, however, they're bloated with blood and ready to leave the table.
They don't wait for the check. They just drop to the ground and spend the
next month or so quietly digesting what they've eaten.
The larvae put on weight in the process, molting and emerging as
"adolescent" nymphs. The nymphs then hitch a ride on a second host, once
again gorging themselves to repletion and dropping off. This time around,
though, they emerge from their postprandial nap as adults. Sex now replaces
food as the most important thing in their lives, and their next blood meal
is followed by an orgy. Soon each mother-to-be is looking for a place to
deposit thousands of fertilized eggs. Then she dies.
Talk about candles in the wind.
By now you know what our part in all this is. Guess who's coming to
dinner. There's just one question left to ask: When can we expect our
uninvited guests to arrive? The answer depends on where we're paddling.
Local weather conditions play an important role, too. In North America,
you'd better plan on having ticks dropping by for a meal anytime from
ice-out to the first frost in autumn, with late spring and early summer
probably being the peak season.
What's that? You say you'd rather not play the obliging host? Then you'd
better learn a few
Tricks of the Ticks' Trade
Nobody likes to find a tick enjoying a meal at his expense. That's why
no Chamber of Commerce puts images of engorged ticks on its website, and
why you won't find any pictures of these little charmers alongside the
seagulls, lighthouses, and blood-red sunsets on the postcards in seacoast
shops. Still, the real problem with ticks isn't their esthetic
shortcomings. It's their eating habits. They suck blood, right? That makes
them mobile hypodermic syringes. They also play the field, taking hosts as
they come. We've all heard of the problems associated with shared needles.
There's no better way to spread disease. It won't come as much of a
surprise, then, that tick-borne diseases (TBDs for short) are a growing
problem, especially now that more and more people are spending time
camping, canoeing, kayaking, even building vacation homes in tick
country. Giving your host a present is only good manners, of course, but
the gifts that ticks give us are the sort that most folks would just as
soon forego. They include Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever,
tularemia (aka "rabbit fever"), relapsing (tick) fever, and erlichiosis.
Some of these are familiar names, already the stuff of headline news. The
rest soon will be.
Want to learn more about TBDs? You should. First, talk to your doctor.
She may have some useful handouts. The "Patient Page" in the Journal of
the American Medical Association is also worth a look. You'll find the
link on the JAMA website. Then get a good
book. The latest edition of Medicine for
Mountaineering has an excellent section on tick-borne disease.
Lastly, don't overlook the pamphlets published by many state and provincial
departments of natural resources. They, too, repay the effort of seeking
them out. In the meantime, here's a life-size portrait of the enemy, as
exemplified by Ixodes scapularis, the common deer tick and the Lyme
With more than 20,000 new cases reported annually in the United States,
most of them in the Northeast and Central Midwest, Lyme Disease is the
poster child of North American TBDs. If diagnosed early, it's eminently
treatable, but if neglected it can progress through three increasingly
unpleasant stages, culminating in debilitating and intractable systemic
illness. Worse yet, the only vaccine was withdrawn after less than four
years on the market. Early diagnosis is obviously critical. Unfortunately,
the characteristic bull's-eye rash at the site of the original bite is
often absent or overlooked, and the poppy-seed-sized nymph the most
aggressive feeder is difficult to spot during the one- to four-day
period needed for transmission of the Lyme disease organism. The best
defense, therefore, is the same as for other TBDs
Keeping the Enemy at a Distance
Clothes are your first line of protection. Shorts and sandals don't cut
it in tick country. Long sleeves, long pants, and high boots are
what you want, and light-colored fabrics are a plus. (Wellies are
great when ticks are on the prod, but be sure to blouse your pants or tuck
them in.) Gloves
and hats make sense, too, particularly if you're fond of bushwhacking.
What if covering up doesn't appeal? That's understandable. Hot, humid
summer days certainly make long pants and rubber boots less than
attractive. Then you'll have to resort to chemical barriers.
Diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET) insect repellents also repel ticks, though DEET isn't
without drawbacks and dangers of its own. It attacks some plastics and
synthetic stretch fabrics, and high concentrations probably shouldn't be
applied to infants and young children. An alternative to smearing or
spraying repellent directly on the skin is to spray it on clothes or onto a
"bug suit," a light mesh coverall which is then pulled over your other
clothing. But impregnating garments with DEET is a tedious business, and
the treated fabric is extremely flammable until thoroughly dry. Moreover,
the whole process has to be repeated every week or so, and after every
heavy rain. That's too much trouble for many paddlers. Instead, they squirt
insect repellent onto the cuffs of their shirts and pants and daub it onto
a bandana that they then drape around their necks. It's better than
But wait! Technology may have the answer. A new line of outdoor apparel
with a catchy name promises to make the job easier at a price. It
carries the idea of impregnated clothing one step further. The catalog copy
claims that BUZZ OFF garments offer "reliable, proven protection from
mosquitoes, ticks, no-see-ums and other biting insects," while also
reassuring buyers that the "odorless and invisible
treatment is bonded
to the clothing." So "there's no need to keep applying messy sprays." OK.
The ad copywriter thought ticks were insects. They're not. Still, the rest
of the pitch sounds pretty good, doesn't it? Yes. But.
"invisible treatment" is permethrin
. It's an insecticide, not a repellent, and it's also toxic to fish.
Moreover, the stuff apparently does come out in the wash, a little
bit at a time. (The ad copy says only that the treatment lasts "through 25
washings.") Not so good. What goes down the drain ends up in the river. And
at a time when every week brings news of yet another
assault on the world's aquatic ecosystems, I'm not eager to add to the
problem. That means no BUZZ OFF for me. Of course, if you live in
tick country you may feel differently.
In any case, whether you opt for nothing more than long pants and high
boots or go the high-tech route, every defense, no matter how cleverly
contrived, will fail sometime. That's when you'll have to tackle the enemy
one on one. The mission objective is simple:
Search and Destroy
If you've spent the day deep in tick country, portaging through the
bush, you have one more chore ahead of you when you make
camp. Ticks are slow movers, even when they're hungry. It takes a while
for them to settle down to a meal, and it takes even longer for any
pathogens circulating in their systems to cross over into yours. Remove the
tick before this happens and you've won the battle.
But you have to find the enemy first. It won't be easy. Ticks are shy.
They like cozy, sheltered places places like your armpits, crotch,
and backside. Unless you're a contortionist with a magnifying mirror,
you'll need the help of a friend. A good friend. This is no time for false
modesty. Be prepared. And finding the tick not an easy job if it's a
nymph the size of a poppy seed is just the beginning. If it's
already stuck in, you've got to get it out. The medical literature isn't
much help here. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommend
"relaxing" the tick's mouthparts by touching it with a hot needle (or by
daubing a little camphor, alcohol, turpentine, or kerosene onto its body)
before grasping it with tweezers and backing it out. Good luck. While this
advice is echoed by some authorities, it's condemned by others and ignored
by still more. Medicine for Mountaineering disdains detail, telling
you only to extract the offending beastie "carefully" with tweezers and
clean the wound afterward. That sounds simple enough, I suppose. But ticks
dig in, remember? Sometimes there's precious little visible tick to grasp.
What then? Farwell, who's played host to my share of ticks as well as his
own, has none too pleasant memories of field surgery with a variety of less
than ideal tools, including a government-issue P-38 can opener (the type
fondly known as a "John Wayne"). His only printable comment echoes the
advice in Medicine for Mountaineering: be careful. Since ticks often
head for your tenderest bits before chowing down, think twice before
cutting too deep. In fact, think twice before cutting at all. If you can't
do the job safely, it's time for professional help.
At least there's one thing everyone seems to agree on crushing a
newly removed tick between your nails is a bad idea. Flick it into the
fire, instead, or drown it in alcohol. Then wash the bite. Later, if you
notice an infection at the site or an unexplained rash, or if you
experience flu-like symptoms, seek medical attention promptly.
It's time to put things in perspective. Yes, ticks bite people and carry
disease. And few of us find them attractive. But every year more than
three-quarters of a million people require medical attention because of dog
bites in the United States alone. That's over 2,000 dog-bite victims a day,
or 60,000 a month nearly three times the number of reported cases of
Lyme disease in the latest year for which data is available. You don't let
your neighbor's dog keep you a prisoner in your house, do you? So don't let
ticks keep you sitting at home. But don't let them play you for a sucker,
either. They're here to stay. Unless you never venture away from a paved
parking lot, you're bound to meet up with one sooner or later. Be ready.
Get to know your enemy, dress sensibly, check yourself and your companions
often for uninvited guests, and see a doctor whenever it's
warranted. Where these little bloodsuckers are concerned, there's no easy
option. Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, whether you're on the
beach or in the bush.
Now that's the ticket!
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