Thirty years ago very few humans were ever bitten by a tick in this part of the country. Part of my job as a Cornell Extension Agent was to identify insects and other pests for local residents and occasionally (perhaps once a year) someone would bring in a bitten dog or wood tick that bit a human. Human tick bites were very rare however until a “new” tick started showing up in the 1990’s that clearly had a desire for human blood.
The new tick at first was thought to be a newly identified species and was named Ixodes dammini. It was called “deer tick” because it was found mostly on deer where the ticks spent the winter. Further investigation determined that it was not a new tick species, but rather an already named species called Ixodes scapularis aka, the southern black legged tick. This tick is relatively common in southern states, but was rarely seen in the north.
What has never been explained, or even seriously investigated to my knowledge, was why these ticks suddenly developed a pronounced preference for human blood, when previously that was not the case. Many millions of research dollars have been expended looking for new treatments for, or better ways to diagnose tick borne illnesses, but this fundamental question remains unanswered. I guess pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies have more clout when it comes to getting grant money than ecological researchers do.
It was quickly discovered that this tick is responsible for transmitting Lyme disease, a bacterial infection. Several years later it was also discovered that the deer tick was also capable of transmitting other, serious diseases such as babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis and a potentially deadly virus. Fairly recently, in the past several years, a few other tick species, including a newly discovered species in New York, the Asian tick, have been implicated in carrying some really nasty diseases, but the majority of reported cases are still due to the deer tick.
The explosion of deer tick numbers and consequent human cases of Lyme disease has caused all of us who spend time outdoors to be especially wary. Backyard gardeners are as much at risk as turkey hunters who have a fondness for napping on the forest floor. Ticks may be found almost everywhere outdoors, but they have a preference for habitat that features tall grasses and brush. Ticks do not jump like fleas, nor can they fly like mosquitoes. They simply wait in ambush for an animal or a human to brush by and then they grab onto clothing or fur or feathers. Once the tick has successfully hitchhiked a ride on your clothing it looks for a good place to take a bite. This usually takes several hours and most ticks can be brushed off one’s clothes before they bite, if you look for them frequently. They seem to prefer tight, constricted places such as under your underwear waistband, tops of socks, or under a woman’s bra strap. In my career I interviewed hundreds of tick bite victims and none of them were bitten on the head, on the feet, hands, face or any other exposed area. They do seem to favor the groin area in both men and women.
Tick bites are generally not painful at first and often go unnoticed because the tick secretes a pain numbing substance in its saliva as it burrows its entire head into flesh. The tick’s mouthparts consist of two saw like appendages that cut into flesh on both sides of a jagged beak. This jagged beak makes it difficult to yank out the tick once fully inserted. Inside the beak, are two straw like tubes. One of these tubes secretes saliva to thin the blood as well as the pain numbing substance. The other tube withdraws blood, like a tiny syringe.
It generally takes from 12 hours to 24 or more hours of feeding on your blood for a tick to become fully engorged with your blood. The tick’s body will swell up to five times or more of its original size in the process. Fully engorged ticks really are quite conspicuous. The color of the engorged tick will also change in color from red or black, to blue/grey or tan.
If you should discover a tick attached to you, remove it with a tweezers as soon as possible by grabbing it as close to the skin as possible and yanking it out! Do not apply any substance to the tick such as Vaseline, or dish soap to get it to release its bite, despite what you many have read on Facebook. While this may allow easier removal of the tick, it also causes the tick to upchuck infected blood back into you. That is precisely how people get Lyme or the other diseases. I will continue this subject next week.