Ticks: A freak-out primer on the pests

  • By Sharon Wootton Herald Columnist
  • Friday, June 29, 2012 10:53am
  • Life

Life is simple along the tick-human interface. Your skin crawls when the predator is spotted. Use tweezers to remove the predator. Kill the predator.

I really do hate this twig on nature’s family tree. Grandchild Gina says, “Yucky!” when asked about ticks. I have an adult version of that sentiment that is not appropriate for a family newspaper.

I grew up in Maryland with ticks, with my mother frequently examining my hair, with my father examining our dogs’ fur. Then there was the unpleasant matter of pulling the bloodsuckers off and killing them. The ones swollen with blood created a particularly distasteful experience.

Out here, our miniature predators are usually the Rocky Mountain wood tick, the brown dog tick and the Western black-legged tick.

The 800-or-so species of ticks are in the class Arachnida, which includes spiders, scorpions and mites, all eight-legged, joint-legged invertebrates. Ticks, however, are particularly skilled at spreading pathogens, some of which can be fatal.

There are hard ticks and soft ticks. Most hard ticks have a shield (scutum) that covers all or most of its body; soft ticks do not. The mouth parts of a hard tick can be seen if you look down on them; a soft tick’s mouthparts are hidden from that angle.

Both types of ticks have distinct life stages. Oddly enough, a larva emerges from the egg with six legs. Nonadult ticks aren’t choosy about their hosts. Even a snake will do if no warm-blooded animals are near.

A soft tick feeds multiple times during each stage (a hard tick only once a stage). Soft adult females lay multiple batches; hard ticks lay one large batch. And the life cycle of a soft tick is longer than a hard tick.

If you find ticks, they are most likely to be the particularly sneaky hard ticks. They hunker down on the edges of grass or leaves and wait … and wait … and wait with their front legs out. This behavior is called questing, and some can wait for months, or in some species, a year or more if necessary.

They can grab onto clothes, skin, fur or hair of a passing warm-blooded host. Then the quest is for flesh and blood. Some ticks need more than one host to complete its life cycle. These predatory maneuvers are extremely successful: fossil records go back at least 90 million years.

Soft ticks are more like bedbugs, hanging out in nests (or beds) of their host.

Female ticks live longer because the males die after mating, leaving the feeding to the females, who die after depositing their batch, or batches, of eggs.

The Center for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov, 800-232-4636) in Washington, D.C., and MedicineNet.com offer the latest in tick advice:

•Know where ticks are most likely to be found, then avoid the area if possible.

Wear light-colored clothing so that the dark ticks can more easily be seen. Tuck pants into boots or socks if walking through grasses.

To help prevent the free rides, use products with DEET on your skin. Products with permethrin can be used on boots, camping gear and clothes. You can put your clothes in a dryer for an hour on high and that should kill any hiding in seams.

Check for ticks at the end of an outing.

Shower after being outdoors.

To remove the tick, skip the folklore remedies, such as using the hot end of a burnt match or “painting” the tick with nail polish or gasoline. Some traditional approaches may cause the tick to release more fluids into the bite.

Use a small pair of tweezers.

Do not yank on the tick because that risks leaving mouth parts behind. Flip it on its back and slowly pull upwards.

To avoid leaving barbed mouth parts, a dermatologist writing for About.com suggests pulling gently enough to lift the skin, then holding that position for the three or four minutes it will take for the tick to be convinced to back out.

Flush the tick down the toilet.

Clean the bite area and your hands (remember those pathogens) with rubbing alcohol or soap and water. Use an antibiotic cream. Don’t forget to clean the tweezers.

If you have a tick bite followed by a fever or rash, see a doctor. If you have any concerns about diseases, bag the tick and freeze it in case the doctor needs to identify the tick.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.

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