TICKS: Outdoor Enemies or Harmless Arachnids?

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A close up view of a tick (Ixodes), an ectoparasite that lives on the blood of mammals or by hematophagy.
Corbis

While outdoor enthusiasts plan a host of activities this time of year, many live in fear of one tiny arachnid – the tick. According to experts who study these minute creatures, that fear is often unfounded, and there are definite steps to take to avoid coming in contact.

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“This is the time of year when certain areas become tick habitats,” said Glen Scoles, a research entomologist for the Agricultural Research Service of the USDA at the Animal Disease Research Unit in Pullman, WA. “Foresty areas are prone to this, and these days many people choose to live in suburbs close to infested areas. Different parts of the country deal with different types of ticks and diseases related to ticks.”

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In the Western United States where Scoles lives, American dog ticks and Rocky Mountain wood ticks are common, some of which can transmit diseases. The latter even accounts for some cases of tick paralysis, said Scoles. “This is a situation where the tick’s saliva causes a response in humans that leads to paralysis, causing people not to be able to use their legs, and as the paralysis creeps upward it can reach the diaphragm and lead to death. However, if the tick is removed properly, the symptoms disappear.”

In the Eastern United States, ticks are commonly connected to Lyme disease, which in early stages can be treated with antibiotics, but if caught too late can lead to debilitating conditions. Recently, black-legged ticks have been associated with cases of encephalitis in New York state.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests two highly effective ways to avoid coming in contact with ticks. First, the CDC recommends using products containing permethrin to treat clothing and outdoor gear. Permethrin is a synthetic chemical that works as both an insecticide and insect repellent. Permethrin should never be used directly on the skin. Further, the CDC recommends using a product with 20 percent or more DEET, which is an oil applied to the skin that provides protection against biting insects, including ticks.

Permethrin has been in use for decades, and these days is even used to treat military uniforms. The chemical has a history of effectiveness with few side effects or dangers, according to Dr. Kirby C. Stafford III, head of the Department of Entomology at The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment and state entomologist for Connecticut.

“Permethrin was one of the first synthetic insecticides that was discovered and has very low toxicity,” Stafford said. “Today it’s used in a wide variety of products in relation to ticks in two ways; first as an ingredient in clothing-based tick repellents, and second as an insecticide for ground application to control ticks.”

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According to Scoles, who has studied ticks for 17 years, the good news is that the widespread fear and cringing associated with ticks is often much ado about nothing.

“Ticks are a part of the natural biology of the world,” Scoles said. “It is important for people to know that every tick that bites you is not carrying some deadly disease. In fact, there is only a one to two percent chance the tick that bites you is going to transmit anything to you. Sometimes people get swollen lymph nodes or severe itching and swelling at the site of the bite, but the symptoms go away. You do not have to assume that all reactions are due to bacteria.”

Scoles cautions that the important step is to remove the tick within 24 to 48 hours with forceps by grasping it as close to the surface of the skin as possible without squeezing the body or the head, and then pulling straight up and out.

“All of those old wives tales you hear about removing ticks are completely wrong,” he said. You can’t touch it with a hot match or smear it with Vaseline to make it come loose.”

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