April is tick awareness month!
Okay, maybe I made that up. But it should be! Here in Michigan, ’tis the season. During our last camping trip to Pigeon River, we were unfortunate to have another run in with these little creatures.
Michigan has three common ticks. The Black-Legged Tick or Deer Tick (Ixodes Scapularis); the Lone Star Tick (Amblyomma Americanum); and the American Dog Tick (Dermacentor Variabilis). These are not the only ticks found in Michigan and the ranges change frequently so it is possible to encounter other varieties.
American Dog Tick
This is the tick we encounter the most. They feed on a variety of hosts. Nymphs and adults can transmit diseases such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Tularemia. These are rare occurrences in Michigan. In the nymph stage, they rarely attach to humans.
The American Dog Tick can survive up to 2 years at any given stage if a host isn’t found.
The Black-Legged Tick
The Black-Legged Tick is the Michigan tick that carries Lyme Disease. We occasionally come across them in the western upper peninsula but we don’t spend too much time along the Lake Michigan coast in the lower peninsula where they are predominately found.
The Black-Legged Tick can take 2 years to complete it’s life cycle. Both nymph and adult stages are able to transmit diseases.
Lone Star Tick
Found mostly in woodlands with dense undergrowth, the Lone Star tick is a notorious pest. In all life stages it is an aggressive human biter. In the nymphal and adult stages it can transmit the pathogens that cause Monocytic Ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and “stari” borreliosis.
Steve and I haven’t encountered this species yet.
The Life of a Tick
Most ticks go through four life stages: egg, larvae, nymph, and adult. Where a tick is in it’s life stage can help determine the threat level, it’s behavior, and what type of host it’s looking for.
A tick in the larvae stage is easily identifiable because they only have six legs. They are extremely tiny and generally search for small rodents such as mice and birds to feed on.
After feeding, the tick moves to the nymph stage. The tick gains it’s 8 legs and, depending on the species, starts feeding on humans, deer, raccoon, dogs, etc.
This is the stage where most disease transfers occur. A nymphal Black-Legged Tick is less than 2mm in size, making it smaller than a poppy seed and very difficult to see.
The adult stage varies from species to species. For example, only the female Black-Legged Tick feeds in this stage as she prepares to lay eggs for the next year while the American Dog Tick male also feeds but not as much as the female.
A single adult female tick can lay up to 4,000 eggs before her life cycle ends.
Finding a Host
It’s bad enough that ticks are tiny arachnids that burrow into the skin of others and eat their blood. But what makes it worse is that ticks hunt. To find it’s host, it can detect the carbon dioxide levels from a host’s breath, smell body odors, sense body heat, and vibrations. A tick can’t fly or jump but it can identify well-used paths and is extremely patient at sitting and waiting for a host to brush by.
Through the process of feeding, ticks can transmit pathogens from previous hosts that cause disease in their current host. A tick will cut into the surface of the skin and insert a feeding tube with little barbs. It releases a small amount of saliva with anesthetic properties so the process goes unnoticed by it’s host.
As the tick feeds, it’s saliva will enter the skin of it’s host and if the tick is infected, the pathogen may be transmitted. The longer the tick feeds, the higher the risk of infection. The general “rule” for the Black-Legged Tick is if the tick is attached for less than 24 hours, it’s not likely to have transmitted any infection.
After feeding, the tick will drop off and prepare for the next life stage. At the next feeding, it can transmit any acquired diseases from previous hosts to it’s new host.
So how do we prevent ticks? Most likely, if you’re in the wild, you’re going to encounter them. It’s all about being prepared for those encounters that will help you in the long run.
Make sure you wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants if possible. Wear light colored clothing to make it easier to spot ticks and tuck long pants into high socks and shirts into pants. We’ve started wearing pantyhose, similar to what the military uses to prevent chiggers, ticks, and other parasites from biting soldiers. These methods help keep the ticks that do hitch a ride off your skin for easy removal.
Deet, 20% or higher, is recommended by the CDC. We haven’t had good luck with this working. If you choose this route, remember to apply repeatedly and frequently.
Treating clothing, tent, and shoes with permethrin is another option. However, we’ve chosen not to use it because of a dozen or so studies have linked low level exposures of permethrin with Parkison’s Disease (Parkinson’s Disease and Permethrin Research Papers.Environmental Factors and Parkison’s: What Have we Learned?, Pesticide link to Parkinson’s). In addition, permethrin is highly toxic to bees and fish.
Picaridin, I think, is a relatively new product. It is claimed to be safer than DEET, longer lasting and works against mosquitoes as well as ticks. Whatever choice of prevention you pick, make sure you do the research on the product before you start using it.
Do tick checks often and very thoroughly. This is said to be the best strategy for tick-borne illness prevention. We’re constantly on the look-out for ticks and take extra time to stop and look over ourselves and dogs carefully.
Keep on hand duct tape for easy tick removal for those not attached and tweezers for removing ticks that have attached.
For our dogs, we’ve found that using flea combs help remove any ticks from their fur. We also check their ears (inside, pockets, outside), paws (in between toes) and mouths.
We’ve also been experimenting with essential oils and have had good results with geranium oil in an area with a high tick population. I don’t recommend ever relying solely on any one solution for protection.
If you come across a tick, try to collect it by putting it in a container with ethanol to kill it or take a photograph of it and log where it was at and the day you encountered it. Contact your local health authority or research center and give them the tick. They can use it to test for diseases and help track and identify species.
As you prepare for camping and hiking trips, don’t forget to take time to prepare for ticks. They are part of nature, whether we like it or not and knowledge is the best weapon against them.