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  • Writer's pictureNoel McCarthy

What Makes a Tick Tick?

Updated: May 25, 2022

As you can probably imagine, the phones start ringing the moment our office open, and continue until we close. Don’t worry. We’re not complaining. On the contrary: We love getting your phone calls. And we love the kinds of questions you ask, we really do.

In the last few weeks however, there has been a definite spike in questions regarding one topic in particular: Getting Rid of Ticks!

close up image of tick for Sterifab bug killer

We’ve discussed ticks before in some of our blogs, such as The Invasion of the Ticks, What It Means & What You Can Do. But this time we decided to answer your tick-related questions directly.

We can’t respond to all of them, but here are a few answers that we think you’ll find useful:

Q: Will you get Lyme disease anytime you get bitten by a tick?

A: Actually, a good question. And the answer is ‘no’, not as a rule. The experts at Cornell University Health Services tell us:

“Not all ticks are infected, and in order to transmit Lyme disease, an infected deer

tick must be attached for at least 24 to 36 hours. But any time you’re bitten by a

tick, you should pay attention to possible signs of Lyme disease – especially a rash

at the site of the bite.”

In fact, it is the black-legged tick (better known as the deer tick) that transmits Lyme disease. It’s found in the Northeastern and North-Central United States, for the most part, but the disease can also be spread by the western black-legged tick, which lives only in our Pacific coastal regions.

None of the other major tick species ̶ such as the Lone Star tick and the dog tick ̶ carry or transmit Lyme disease, as far as we know. However, Lyme disease has surfaced in virtually every state of the Union, including Alaska and Hawaii, so be forewarned.

Q: Why do so many ticks carry Lyme disease?

A: As a matter of fact, ticks have been linked to at least nine bacterial diseases, including Lyme disease, Anaplasmosis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, as well as four viral infections, including Powassan disease. But, only three types ticks are to blame for the majority of US cases of tick-related illness: the blacklegged tick, the Lone Star tick and the American dog tick.

The reason that ticks carry so many disease-causing agents is fairly simple: They are parasites; and parasites feed on blood to survive ̶ and reproduce. That puts them in direct contact with a wide assortment of animals which, in turn, potentially carry many bacterial and viral infections.

As Greg Abel, a professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology at Colorado State University, has pointed out:

“Several factors may be contributing to the rise in tick-borne illnesses. There are more

ticks in places where they have always been, and there are now ticks in places where

they never were. More ticks, of course, mean more tick bites.”

However, Professor Abel also adds that, “increased awareness of tick-borne diseases among health professionals, as well as improved technologies to diagnose these illnesses” has also added to these apparently increased numbers.

Q: How serious is a tick bite?

A: That very much depends on which species of tick has bitten you, and whether or not it’s actually carrying any of the diseases we’ve discussed.

The staff at the Mayo Clinic tell us that:

“Most tick bites are painless and cause only minor signs and symptoms, such as

redness, swelling or a sore on the skin. But some ticks transmit bacteria that

cause illnesses.”

Of course, it’s important that you identify which tick bit you, but you should also make every effort to remove that unwanted ‘hitchhiker”. Here are the steps you should take:

  1. First, take a pair of fine-tipped tweezers to grip the tick ̶ as close to the surface of your skin as possible.

  2. Second, now that you have the tick pull gently upward, with steady, even pressure. Be careful not to twist or jerk at the tick. That could snap off the head or mouth parts, which would then remain embedded in the skin. Should this happen, you absolutely must remove the remaining body parts. However, if you don’t succeed you would be well-advised to visit your doctor or emergency care center. I can tell you from painful experience that leaving parts of a tick in the skin can lead to infection. That, in turn, will have you on antibiotics for at least 10 days.

  3. If you do succeed in removing the tick and any of its body parts, you should meticulously clean the bite area ̶ and your hands ̶ with soap and water, or, better still, rubbing alcohol.

  4. One caveat: If you find a live tick on your skin don’t crush it. That can transfer unwanted (and possibly) infected fluids into your system. Instead, flush it down the toilet, or, if you want to have it identified by a laboratory, place it in a sealed plastic bag or container and wrap tape around it (this will prevent punctures).

how to get rid of ticks or safely remove a tick

Q: Can dog ticks cause disease in humans?

A: In a word, “yes”, they can. But it very much depends on the type of tick we’re talking about.

As a matter of fact, tick bites alone only cause mild irritation to humans who have been bitten. It’s when the tick is carrying one of many possible diseases that problems can arise. People can’t actually catch Rocky Mountain Fever, or even Lyme Disease, from infected dogs, but the ticks that afflict these poor animals can trigger these ailments if they bite humans.

Remember, ticks are parasites, and they depend on blood for sustenance. And they’re not particular where it comes from. Ticks prey on dogs, cats, deer, opossum, squirrels ̶ and, of course, humans ̶ it’s all the same to them. Now, it may well be that you don’t actually realize that you’ve been bitten by a tick. It happens, especially if the bite occurs on the back of the knee, under the armpit, on the back of the neck or under the hairline.

But, suppose you’re unaware that you’ve been bitten by a disease-carrying tick! How can you tell?

Well, you can’t ̶ until the symptoms appear. But what symptoms should you look out for? If you’re unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of an infected tick here are some symptoms you might look out for:

  • Stiffness of the neck

  • Headaches

  • Nausea

  • Unaccountable weakness

  • Joint or muscle pain

  • Fever

  • Swollen lymph nodes

If you are subject to any of these ailments, and you don’t know why, go to your doctor or emergency care center right away. Do not hesitate. Please!

Q: How contagious is the Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever?

A: Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is not generally contagious, person to person. The disease originates with a bacterium called Rickettsia rickettsii. Staying on the subject of symptoms, the three main indicators: The tick bite itself, fever, and a rash.

There are a number of ways of treating Rock Mountain Fever, but the medical consensus is that treatment should be undertaken with antibiotics, usually doxycycline and, occasionally, chloramphenicol. We should also note that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends doxycycline for RMSF infections in children.

Q: Which US state has the most number of tick-borne illnesses?

A: Okay. Given everything you’ve already learned in this bug-obsessed blog, you may be wondering which states have the most ticks. So here it is:

The Top 10 States with the Most Cases of Tick-Borne Diseases:

  1. Pennsylvania: Tick-borne disease cases: 73,610

  2. New York: Tick-borne disease cases: 69,313

  3. New Jersey: Tick-borne disease cases: 51,578

  4. Massachusetts: Tick-borne disease cases: 50,234

  5. Connecticut: Tick-borne disease cases: 36,727

  6. Wisconsin: Tick-borne disease cases: 33,255

  7. Minnesota: Tick-borne disease cases: 26,886

  8. Maryland: Tick-borne disease cases: 22,166

  9. Virginia: Tick-borne disease cases: 16,454

  10. New Hampshire: Tick-borne disease cases: 13,710

Have a tick problem?

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