Now that summer is finally here, many people are heading outdoors to enjoy more sunshine and exercise. Children are playing happily outside, running through the grass without a care in the world. Parents, on the other hand, have a fairly large worry with the increase in outdoor activity: ticks. The concern for ticks has increased dramatically in recent years, as have the number of tick-borne illnesses being reported. It is something we have to keep in mind, and the better we understand how these little creatures work, the better we can prepare ourselves and avoid being bitten – so let’s learn a little about the life cycle of a tick.
Ticks are part of the arachnid family, just like spiders, mites and scorpions. While there are many different types of ticks that live in Britain, there are not many that will actually bite humans. The most common and problematic tick is the sheep tick, also known as the Castor Bean tick. Other ticks that are known to bite humans are the hedgehog tick and the fox or badger tick.
While there is still a risk of picking up ticks all year long, their population usually grows in the warmer seasons. There are outbreaks of ticks between the warmer months of March–June, and then again in August–November. Ticks usually slow down a bit in July when the weather tends to be hotter than they prefer. Ticks do not die off in the winter, but rather find shelter under leaves to survive the cold, and they lay dormant until spring. Some species of ticks, however, like the adult deer tick, remain active all year long. They live primarily in grassy areas that tend to be moist, so they don’t run the risk of drying out. Ticks prefer to live in woodlands, wetlands, rough pasture and parks.
Ticks begin their lives in eggs, usually laid on the ground. Once they hatch as larvae, they seek their first host by ‘questing’, which is the term given to their practice of balancing on the end of a blade of grass, waiting for a host to walk by so they can latch on and begin their ‘blood meal’ (yes, unfortunately, it is actually called that!). Ticks can’t fly or jump, so they have to wait for the right opportunity to grab on to a host that is passing by. The six-legged larvae usually feed on small animals like rodents or birds. Once the larvae are full, they drop off their host and moult into nymphs. Nymphs repeat the questing process, this time in search of slightly larger prey, such as dogs or cats, and even possibly humans, depending on the type of tick. Once the nymph is full of blood, it also drops off its host and begins its moulting process. The adult emerges, and if it is a female, it seeks a host to feed on, mates, and then drops off and dies – but not before laying thousands of eggs.
In the summer, during periods when ticks are known to be the most active and populous, it is important for people to take the necessary precautions to avoid being bitten. When participating in activities that will have you in high-risk areas, be sure to spray your clothing and skin with a suitable insect repellent with a minimum of 20% DEET and 0.5% permethrin, as both chemicals are known to repel ticks. High-risk activities include walking or playing in highly treed or grassy areas, sitting out in grassy areas, and gardening. Wear long pants and socks if you are planning on being out in these types of areas, and check your footwear and clothing before going back inside. Taking the proper precautions is the best way of dealing with this increase in populations.
The biggest risk of being bitten by a tick is that there is a possibility of contracting Lyme disease. Fortunately, not all ticks carry the bacterium that causes Lyme disease; in fact, only a small percentage of ticks do. However, with tick populations on the rise, so are the number of cases of tick-borne illnesses being reported. Lyme disease is an infectious (or parasitic) disease that doesn’t usually present itself until 10–14 days after a person is bitten. The symptoms that people experience are also rather vague, as they merely seem like general flu symptoms, including headache, fatigue, upset stomach, sore muscles, joint pain and poor sleep. However, if left untreated, Lyme disease can disrupt the central nervous system, causing a whole host of problems.
Should you see that you’ve been bitten by a tick, however, do not panic! Get a pair of fine-tipped tweezers, and grab a hold of as much of the tick as possible. Pull straight up gently but firmly, being careful not to twist or yank, or you run the risk of part of the tick being left in your skin and the bacterium to be released. Clean the area with rubbing alcohol and dispose of the tick by drowning it in more alcohol, putting in a sealed bag, or flushing it down the toilet. If you suspect a tick bite or notice symptoms related to Lyme disease, visit your doctor as soon as possible, as it is treatable with antibiotics if caught in time.