By MARION BARNES
Senior County Extension Agent
A tick encounter can happen at any time of the year, but ticks are more active beginning in the spring and pose a threat until we receive a hard frost in the fall.
Ticks are not insects, but are closely related to scorpions, spiders and mites. They are external parasites that need a blood meal to survive and reproduce. They are not picky about where they get their next meal either and can feed on humans, other mammals, reptiles, birds and even frogs.
Ticks have a simple life cycle. Depending on the species, the female after fertilization can lay as many as 6,000 eggs that hatch in as little as two weeks or may take several months, depending on the environment. The six-legged larva, often called seed ticks, can be extremely active or lie in wait for a host to come by, usually by climbing up on a blade of grass. After a bloodmeal, the seed tick (larva) will shed its skin and molt into an eight-legged nymph which eventually develops into the adult stage.
Adult ticks prefer to feed on large animals such as deer, dogs, horses or humans. Ticks locate a host by detecting exhaled carbon dioxide and body heat.
There are around 80 different kinds of ticks found in the United States; fortunately, most are not associated with humans or pets. Ticks have been known to transmit several diseases to humans with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Lyme Disease being the most common. Other less common diseases include Tularemia, Anaplasmosis, Human Ehrlichiosis, Southern Tick-Associated Rask Illness (STARI). Alpha-gal Syndrome, also referred to as Tick Induced Mammalian Meat Allergy, is an emerging disease thought to be associated with the bite of a tick.
In addition to tick-borne diseases, a toxin can be transmitted through the saliva of a tick bite that causes progressive paralysis, a condition known as “tick paralysis.” Tick feeding also may cause a mild to severe allergic reaction in some humans.
Four of the most commonly encountered ticks in the Southeast are the American Dog tick, lone star tick, the “deer” tick or blacklegged tick and the brown dog tick. The term “wood tick” is used for many ticks including the American dog tick, the lone star tick and the “deer” tick or blacklegged tick, due to the fact that they are usually found in wooded areas. These ticks tend to crawl around for a few hours before they attach themselves to a host. The brown dog tick prefers to feed on dogs, although it will also seek out other host like humans and can be a nuisance in the home. It is one of the few ticks that will infest a structure.
What about the disease ticks can transmit? Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium and transmitted to humans and other host by the blacklegged or “deer” tick. When treated with antibiotics, people usually recover quickly and completely. When symptoms are undetected and untreated, infections can spread to joints, heart and nervous system, causing serious medical complications. Lyme disease can also occur in horses and dogs.
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF) is caused by a bacterium and transmitted by the American dog tick, which occurs east of the Rocky Mountains. This disease can be fatal if not treated appropriately and quickly, and even with treatment, fatalities can still occur. Dogs may also be affected by Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness or STARI results in a rash similar to that caused by Lyme disease. The bacterium, Borrelia lonestari has been isolated from the lone star tick and thought to be the suspected agent of this disease.
Tularemia, also called rabbit or deer fly fever is a rare, infectious disease caused by a bacterium transmitted through the bite of an infected tick or deer fly or through the handling of an infected animal carcass, such as when skinning a rabbit. The American dog tick and the lone star tick are ticks that transmit Tularemia in the east. This highly contagious and potentially fatal disease can be treated effectively if diagnosed early.
Tick-borne Human Ehrlichiosis is a general term used to collectively describe diseases caused by several bacterium transmitted through the bite of ticks, primarily the American dog tick and the lone star tick. This disease can cause life-threating infections in humans and animals.
Prevention is the best way to avoid tick bites and the diseases that they transmit. Although not always possible, avoid the areas that harbor ticks such as woodlands, tall grass and brushy areas. Avoiding vegetation that brushes up against your body, especially your legs, is essential to avoid ticks.
When in “tick habitat,” take precautions such as wearing long sleeved shirts, long pants and hats. Ticks are easier to detect when wearing white clothing. To deter ticks from getting under clothing, tuck cuffs of pants’ legs in socks or boots and shirts under your belt. Apply the appropriate tick repellant.
Early removal is good prevention. Conduct a visual inspection your clothing and body twice per day for ticks. There is evidence that the longer a tick is allowed to feed, the greater the chance of disease transmission.
If a tick bites you, carefully remove the embedded tick by grasping it with a pair of tweezers or forceps at the point closest to the skin. Pull it out slowly and steadily, taking care not to crush the tick, since crushing it could introduce disease into your body. After removal, disinfect the bite area. Save the tick in a small container with rubbing alcohol. This way, if a problem is suspected later, the tick can be identified. In order to test the tick for disease, it must be kept alive.
Finally, record the date you were bitten incase symptoms occur later. Consult your medical advisor if symptoms or any problems you suspect are associated with the tick bite arise.
Texas A&M University has developed TickApp for Texas and the southern region to provide citizen consumers and professional practitioners with a convenient guide to the identification of ticks impacting humans, livestock, companion animals and wildlife. This app provides educational information on tick biology, disease causing pathogens, prevention and protection, and control and management.
Checkout TickApp at: https://tickapp.tamu.edu/ for more information on ticks. Other educational resources include, the Clemson University Home and Garden Fact Sheet HGIC 2484, Ticks Around the Home.
Information for this article was taken in part from the following resources: Clemson University HGIC 2484, Ticks Around the Home by J.M. Sargent, P.A. Zungoli and E.P. Benson, HGIC 2483, Tick-Borne Diseases Affecting Humans in the Southeastern United States by T. Nicolette, P.A. Zongoli, C. Evans and E. Benson, and the University of Georgia publication, Protect Yourself from Ticks written by Burton Evans and Beverley Sparks and revised by Elmer Gray.