I Wish They Yelled Spoon Instead!: A Note About Ticks

Well, it’s that time of year again…the ticks are back! For many of us, nothing quite parallels the anxiety one feels knowing that there is an arachnid as large as the “o” in this sentence to the period at the end “questing” for a new victim on the end of a low branch or clump of grass. Deer ticks (Ixodes scapularis), dog ticks (Dermacentor variabilis), and lone star ticks (Amblyomma americanum) are all unwelcome pests that can carry disease and are often hard to locate. That’s one of the worst things about them; you might not even know that they are there!

According to wildlife biologist David George Haskell, in his book The Forest Unseen, the average tick’s adaptations sound as if they were sprung straight from a comic book. As they walk on your skin, it’s as if they tantalize your nerves and prevent them from sensing something crawling on them. They move towards a spot on your body that is moist and warm and tight. Ticks relish the skin between joints, along creases of skin, along the waist band, and even in between our legs. The little pervs!

When they’ve found the perfect spot, these vile critters put their jaws to work, poking into skin and hoping to find blood. As they drink, they release anticoagulant saliva that prevents the blood from clotting, maintaining the flow of a rich food source until they balloon in size.

The ticks I hate the most are deer ticks, also known as black-legged ticks.* They, along with dog ticks, can give you Lyme disease and trust me, it isn’t fun! Several years ago when I was teaching in New Jersey, at some point in time I was bitten by a black-legged tick and eventually came down with Lyme arthritis, a condition caused by a bacterium injected when the tick’s saliva is released into the bloodstream. The reaction results in swollen joints, cushioned by large amounts of synovial fluid and is painful to bend and move.

The medicine used to cure Lyme Disease is called doxycycline (or sometimes tetracycline) and while it can beat back the bacterium, it comes with some noxious side effects. Since a majority of tick bites happen in the warm parts of the year, the medicine can make you allergic to the sun. It’s recommended that you cover up in order to prevent severe burns or possible sun stroke. Another side effect is having to avoid dairy while taking the medicine which for someone who likes milk in their tea and ate cereal on a regular basis, it was very hard indeed.

As someone who enjoys the outdoors, but hates ticks, I’ve found a few methods that work in order to prevent my getting Lyme once again that will work for you too.

1. Ticks can be small as the period at the end of this sentence, so it’s paramount you check yourself and your hiking partners before you head home for the day. Check along hairlines, under arms and behind knees, along legs and arms, and in your waistband. You can check your own privates just to be sure too. If you see a freckle you’re pretty sure wasn’t there before, check it out. Better safe than sorry.

2. Wear light colored clothing and, if you can bear it in the summer, wear long sleeves and pants. If you’re like me and can’t wait to show off those hairy legs in a new pair of shorts, consider this last point.

3. Use a bug repellent with DEET in it. Yes, I’m aware of the concerns about its potential for causing cancer in higher doses. When I worked at summer camp, we called bug spray bottles with percentages of DEET higher than 50%: “cancer in a bottle”. However, it is effective at preventing ticks, mosquitoes, black flies, and other bothersome invertebrates from getting to you.

If you are still concerned about DEET, you can use a bug spray containing lemongrass, peppermint, and other herbal scents that can mitigate your chances of getting ticks and mosquitoes. Alternatively, you can spray your clothes, socks, and shoes, as well as, tucking your pants ends into your socks to prevent them from getting on your skin.

If you follow these steps, you are assured to have a better time outdoors and have to worry a little less about whether you’re bringing some uninvited guests home with you.

*The title photo was taken by a user on iNaturalist called Buddy and is licensed under Creative Commons.

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