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How to Remove Ticks and Essential Facts About These Bloodsuckers

Maybe you noticed one crawling up your leg after a hike through tall grass or felt one on your dog’s back while petting its fur. Worse, you might find one already burrowed into your skin, engorged with blood.

Ticks are parasitic bloodsuckers that can spread deadly diseases and are becoming increasingly common. Here’s what you need to know about them.

Ticks 101

Ticks are arachnids, related to mites and more distantly to spiders. There are over 800 species of ticks globally, with 84 documented in the United States. However, only a few in the US bite and transmit diseases to humans, including blacklegged ticks (deer ticks), lone star ticks, American dog ticks, and brown dog ticks.

After hatching, a tick goes through three life stages: larva, nymph, and adult. Both male and female ticks feed on blood by inserting their barbed, straw-like mouthparts into the host’s skin. Unlike mosquitoes, only female ticks drink until they become engorged.

“When you see a super big and engorged female, that means she’s going to be laying eggs and starting that life cycle process over again,” said Kait Chapman, an extension educator and urban entomologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Ticks change dramatically in size and appearance based on age and how much blood they’ve consumed. “The nymph blacklegged tick, if you put these unfed ones on a poppy seed bagel, they blend in quite nicely,” said Dr. Thomas Mather, a professor of public health entomology at the University of Rhode Island and director of its Center for Vector-Borne Disease and TickEncounter Resource Center. An engorged adult female of the same species can swell to the size of a pea.

Tick Bites and Diseases

Ticks can bite any time of year. If you find one attached to you or your pet, remove it carefully.

“The recommendation is to use a pair of tweezers, grasp the tick by its head as close to the skin as possible, and pull it straight out,” Chapman said. “We don’t want to twist, because we could leave part of the mouthpart embedded in the skin. And we don’t want to squeeze the body because it could regurgitate more, increasing the chance of tick-borne illness.”

Instead of squashing the removed tick, drown it in hand sanitizer or rubbing alcohol and keep it to show to an expert, or take a photo. This helps identify the tick type and how long it’s been feeding; the University of Rhode Island’s TickEncounter website offers identification tools based on coloration, size, and geographic location.

Identifying the tick is crucial because different species carry different diseases. They pick up bacteria, viruses, and other microbes from the blood of infected hosts and can transmit these pathogens to new victims.

For example, blacklegged tick larvae and nymphs often feed on white-footed mice, which can carry Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. In contrast, lone star ticks do not feed on white-footed mice and thus do not carry Lyme disease, though they do carry other disease-causing microbes and can induce a red meat allergy.

A September 2023 study identified a protein that helps ticks like the deer tick and Western blacklegged tick get infected with Anaplasma phagocytophilum, causing anaplasmosis, a disease distinct from Lyme disease. Understanding this protein might help scientists stop the spread of anaplasmosis, which can cause severe headaches, fever, chills, vomiting, and fatigue, according to Cedars-Sinai.

Preventing Tick Bites

Tick-borne diseases can be debilitating or even life-threatening, and the risk of infection increases the longer a tick remains attached. While treatments exist, prevention is best.

Ticks are attracted to cues such as the carbon dioxide exhaled by animals, but they tend to lie in wait rather than actively seeking prey.

“Contrary to popular belief, they don’t fall from trees. They simply sit at the edge of a tall blade of grass and put their front leg out. We call that questing,” Chapman said. “They wait for a host to brush by them, and that’s primarily how people get ticks: They brush by it; it attaches to their leg or clothes.”

Insect repellents containing DEET, picaridin, and oil of lemon eucalyptus are EPA-approved for tick protection, though they work differently than against mosquitoes. For instance, DEET “burns the feet of ticks, and they fall off because their feet are burning,” Mather said. However, “as soon as the product is dried, it doesn’t burn as much, so it doesn’t last very long for ticks.”

Chapman recommends wearing treated clothing with permethrin, which is highly effective against ticks. Permethrin blocks nerve conduction in ticks, making them hyper-excited before losing function and eventually dying. Additionally, placing your clothes in a dryer for 30 minutes upon returning home can kill any ticks.

These precautions might seem extreme, but they are essential in today’s “more ticks in more places” world, according to Mather. He attributes the influx of ticks more to the increasing presence of white-tailed deer in populated areas than to climate change.

Despite the spread of ticks and the severity of the illnesses they cause, Chapman emphasized that with proper precautions (including tick preventatives for pets), you can still enjoy the outdoors.

“Yes, ticks exist. Yes, they can be a public health concern, but we don’t want you to let ticks keep you indoors,” she said. “You should still be able to go outside and enjoy nature, but you just have to, once again, perform those tick checks. So take a little bit of time. Do that.”

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