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Tick Season Is Upon Us

Renee-Lucie BenoitYou know that book called All Creatures Great and Small? Actually, I never read it. Did it mention ticks? They are definitely small. However, not being a biologist I guess I just don't have the awe and appreciation of the lowly tick. I don't think the ticks think much of me either. They just think of me as a meal.

I picked the first tick of the season off me the other day. I'm sure you know the feeling. First you feel something tickling you just at your hair line so you reach up and the first thing you feel is a tiny little thing that has movement. What is that? Your eyes get wide. So you pick it off and you look down to see this little black thing pinched between your fingers and you immediately recognize it for what it is.

Then the next thing you think is how did you get there? You rascal you! Did you drop from the sky or did you make your way up my pants all the way to my neck undetected? You're an amazing critter of stealth. If you're like me and have had a little education on the tick you will know they can't really bite you quickly. So like me you might get a piece of toilet paper and examine the bugger a bit before you dispatch it down the toilet. I always dispatch it down the toilet because I don't want it resurrecting itself a la Fatal Attraction in my bed later.

Dermacentor variabilis or American Dog Tick (or wood tick) | iStockphoto.com/stevelenzphoto

Photo: Dermacentor variabilis or American Dog Tick (or wood tick) | iStockphoto.com/stevelenzphoto

I'm looking at it to see if I can determine if it's a dog tick or a black-legged deer tick. If it's a dog tick, I breathe a sigh of relief. It's almost always a dog tick. If it's a deer tick I will keep it in a jar of alcohol and if I ever get symptoms of Lyme Disease I will have that sucker tested. And me, too! Lyme must be taken seriously! I have at least one friend, the redoubtable Robert Cowart, whose personal blog (BobCowart.blogspot.com) is all about Lyme. He got it as a young boy while tramping the woods of eastern Pennsylvania. Years later it came roaring into his life mimicking the worst case of Parkinson's Disease, and it's wreaked havoc on his life. Yes, Lyme must be taken seriously. So I do.

Ixodes scapularis or deer tick | iStockphoto.com/tuzyra

Photo: Ixodes scapularis or deer tick | iStockphoto.com/tuzyra

You can see that the dog tick is opposite – in general – from the deer tick. The carapace of the dog tick is light colored and the body is dark. The deer tick is opposite of that.

Dog ticks don't carry Lyme. Deer ticks do.

Now the other thing about ticks is that they're not like mosquitoes. A mosquito will land on you and instantly bite you. A tick, on the other hand, will crawl on you and take its time looking for the perfect spot before it starts biting. This is why if you have the bugger in hand you can safely examine it. Just don't let it get away from you and disappear in the cracks of the sofa. You might have a hard time finding it again.

Tick Control

Since we're all outdoorsy people and we don't want some little insect telling us where we can and can't go, there are some things we can do to thwart them in their mission. I don't have to do any research into this subject. I was lucky enough to live in a house that had a tick field researcher from the University of California at Berkeley. She disabused me of a lot of notions and informed me of some important facts.

  1. Wear light colored clothing so if the buggers start crawling up your pant leg you can see them. I once picked four or five ticks off this way.

  2. Tuck your pant legs into your socks. They'll still try to burrow into your socks but let's not make it easy for them to crawl up the inside of your pant leg.

  3. Spray tick repellant on your clothing. Liberally.

  4. Try to wend your way in areas where there isn't a lot of high brush. We were at Ano Nuevo once for an elephant seal viewing and the naturalist all of a sudden said come here and take a look at this. At the tip of some tall grass she pointed out a little cadre of ticks hanging out on the grass end by their back legs with their little front legs outstretched in full Flying Wallenda position to catch whatever passerby accidentally brushed up against them. We gave them wide berth. We couldn't squash them on the spot. It's a preserve thing.

  5. Take a shower immediately upon your return home and wash your hair. You still might get the odd tick (Don't ask me how. Remember, they are the definition of stealth!), but you'll feel a lot better.

What happens once you pick a tick off yourself, among other things? You start to itch all over and now every little itch is a possible tick. Taking a shower seems to alleviate this weird response. At least it does for me.

What should you do if, God forbid, you find an embedded tick? Well, just like anything, don't panic. Just get it out of you as soon as you can. Turns out there's a right way and a wrong way. Forget all the advice to smear it with petroleum jelly or burn it with a cigarette or match head. I remember once as a girl watching my dad take a lit cigarette to an enormous engorged tick that was on our dog's ear. It worked. The tick fell right off. That may work for dogs but not really, because what you're trying to do is not stress the tick out so much that it (and here we'll warn you for an imminent gross description) regurgitates saliva into the bite. The saliva is filled with bacteria and nasty things including the possible Lyme. No, the best possible plan is to get flat end tweezers and with great care slide that puppy underneath the beast, clamp down and pull straight back firmly. Don't yank. Don't wimp out. Just do it with purpose. We want to get the whole tick including those nasty mouth parts.

If you don't feel confident, go to the doctor.

Now that you're properly grossed out, there's one last bit of advice. Put some antiseptic ointment on the bite and prepare for it to get red and itchy. When the tick bit into you (actually the truth is they DRILL into you because they have corkscrew mouth parts), there is always some contamination of bacteria. Then watch for the tell-tale signs of the Lyme flu-like symptoms or the red "bull's eye" that may form around the bite site. Or if you're very cautious, send that tick to a lab to be analyzed. Again, if you can identify it as a dog tick don't worry. It's only if you can identify it as a deer tick.

I grew up in the Midwest. Mom always had tick patrol when we'd come back from a romp in the woods. They didn't know about Lyme at that time. Mom just thought they were nasty. Therefore, I have to honor the memory of my mother for that caretaking alone. I'm sure she saved us kids. It's Tick Season. Do you know where your children are?