There has been a lot of coverage about ticks recently, with such a dramatic rise in their population and the increase in tick-borne illnesses being confirmed. With summer upon us, people are taking extra precaution when going into areas that are known to be populated by ticks. What are ticks, then? Well, they are part of the arachnid family, the same as spiders, mites and scorpions. They are just as creepy as those bugs, too! Ticks are very tiny and hard to spot, often appearing as just a little freckle against the skin, as the majority of their large head is embedded into the skin of the unsuspecting host with just their body sticking out.
Because ticks are so tiny, they are even harder to detect in their common environments: areas with lots of grass and plants. Ticks prefer coniferous and deciduous woodlands, moorlands, wetlands and pretty much anywhere they are protected from drying out, so any places that are moist. There are many different species of ticks, but the most common ticks in Britain are the sheep tick, also known as the castor bean tick. These ticks are also the kind most known to bite humans, as they feed on a variety of mammals and birds. Other common ticks in Britain include the hedgehog tick and the fox or badger tick. Elsewhere in the world, common ticks include the deer tick and the American dog tick.
While ticks live all year long, they are most active in the warm spring months from March to June, and then again in late summer and into fall, from August to November. So do ticks hibernate? And is there a tick risk in winter? Surprisingly, ticks can survive the cold winter months by becoming dormant under some shelter, such as old fallen leaves. While the risk is greatest in the summer months, people should even take precaution against ticks during the winter, whenever they are in an environment that ticks would frequent.
Ticks latch on to their hosts by a technique called ‘questing’, where they wait on the end of a blade of grass or plant until an animal passes by, at which point it latches on to the host and will often remain for several days. Once it has had enough for its ‘blood meal’, the tick will drop off and begin the next phase of its life cycle.
The adult female tick, in the final stage of its life cycle, will attach on to a large host to eat, mate, and drop off to die, but not before laying thousands of eggs. These eggs will then hatch into tick larvae, and they will begin their questing for a host. Six-legged tick larvae usually feed on smaller hosts, such as small rodents or birds. They latch on to their host by questing, and remain on them until they have had enough of their meal. They then drop off from their host, and moult into the next stage of the tick life cycle: the tick nymph. Nymphs attach on to a larger host, such as a dog, cat or larger rodent, using the questing method, and feed until they are full and engorged. Then, they drop off and moult yet again, this time turning into the final adult phase of the tick life cycle. Depending on the species of tick, the adult tick will usually latch on to an even larger host, such as a human, for their final blood meal. This entire life cycle can take up to two years to complete, and many ticks die before reaching maturity due to not being able to find a suitable host to feed on.
The biggest concern with ticks is that some can carry a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi which, in turn, can cause Lyme disease. Lyme disease is an infectious, or parasitic, disease whose symptoms do not begin to present themselves until approximately 14 days after being bitten by an infected tick. Even then, the symptoms are difficult to detect, because they are very similar to a common flu, such as headache, sore muscles, extreme fatigue, upset stomach, muscle pain and trouble sleeping. In some cases, a bulls-eye-shaped rash appears on the skin, but this does not happen every time. If caught early with antibiotics, Lyme disease is completely curable. However, if not caught in time, the disease can cross into the central nervous system, hindering mental functions.
So what to do if you’ve been bitten by a tick? The best course of action is to use a pair of fine-tipped tweezers to grab a hold of the body of the tick that will be sticking out of the host’s skin. Try to grab as much of the tick as you can, then pull firmly but gently straight out. Avoid twisting or jerking the tick, as that could cause a part of the tick to remain embedded in the skin, and that runs the risk of some of the bacterium being released into the body. Clean to bite area with rubbing alcohol, and disposed of the tick by flushing it down the toilet, drowning it in rubbing alcohol, or putting it in a sealed bag.
No matter what time of year it may be, always try to take precautions when you are going to be in an area that ticks frequent. While ticks remain relatively dormant throughout the winter months, they are still around, under leaf cover and grasses. Some ticks remain fully active all through the winter. So it is always best to be cautious, apply insect repellent with at least 20% DEET and 0.05% permethrin, and wear long clothing when going into wooded or grassy areas – even in the colder months.