Ticks are parasites that resemble insects, but are actually a form of mite. (Mites being arachnids-like spiders-and not insects.)
Ticks are exoparasites specifically, meaning the kind of parasite that attaches to the outside of the host, rather than burrowing inside to attack from within. They are small, though typically not too small to see with the naked eye. Adult ticks tend to be anywhere from 1/8 of an inch to 1/2 of an inch long.
Ticks live off the blood of mammals and birds, or occasionally reptiles and amphibians. They attack our pets, our livestock, and even people themselves. Once they start sucking blood, they hang around for awhile. Ticks are not like mosquitoes, just stopping by for a quick meal. They will often remain attached to the host for several days of feeding.
Ticks can transmit many diseases to humans. The best known are probably Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, but there are many others, including babesiosis, erlichiosis, southern tick-associated rash illness, tick-borne relapsing fever, and tularemia.
Though ticks can certainly be found in residences, they are more often encountered in the woods, in the wild, while hiking, etc.
There are many measures one can take to avoid catching a disease from a tick:
1. Avoid areas where ticks are most likely to be.
Ticks prefer moist, humid environments. They do not fly or jump, but will typically wait on tall grass, bushes, trees, etc. for an opportunity to drop onto or crawl onto a suitable host. The more you venture into wooded areas, grassy areas, heavy vegetation, etc., the more likely you are to encounter ticks. If you are hiking down the center of a trail, it’s generally going to be difficult or impossible for a tick to gain access to you.
2. Wear pest-repellent clothing.
Hiking and camping apparel can be purchased that has been pre-treated with the repellent permethrin. You can also purchase permethrin to treat your clothes yourself. (Clothes only; permethrin is not for use on skin.)
3. Use a pest repellent.
The most effective repellents to be used on the skin contain N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide (DEET). A product with at least 20% DEET provides protection for several hours.
4. Wear light clothing.
Ticks are dark and can more easily be seen on light clothing, so by wearing light clothes you’ll have a better chance of spotting and getting rid of one that’s on your clothes before it can get to your skin. (On the other hand, this advantage may be offset by the fact that some studies indicate ticks are slightly more attracted to light clothes in the first place.)
5. Tuck your pant legs into your socks.
You don’t want to leave bare skin where ticks can have easy access to it. Make it as difficult and circuitous a route as possible for a tick to get past your clothes and to your skin.
6. Check for ticks after being outdoors.
If you have been outside in an area where ticks are a problem, when you get home thoroughly check yourself and your family, and pets, for ticks. Some of the most popular tick hangouts include under the arm, between the legs, behind the knees, and in the hair. If you do find a tick, don’t assume it’s too late. Even after ticks reach the skin, they sometimes will not start to feed for several hours. Once they do start to feed, disease transmission is not instantaneous, but can take an additional several hours.
7. Put clothes that you’ve worn outdoors through the dryer.
Again if you have been outside in an area where ticks are a problem, even if no ticks made it through to you, there may be one or more on your clothes. You can look over your clothes, but they are small enough that you could easily miss them. Ticks are actually better able to survive the hot water of the washing machine than the dry heat of the dryer. So launder your clothes and put them through a cycle in the dryer set to high heat.
Ticks carry some nasty diseases, so it’s definitely worth the bother to take some precautions. If you know that you have been bitten by a tick, monitor if you feel sick or have any symptoms, and be prepared to seek medical attention.
Debbie Hadley, “10 Tips to Avoid Tick Bites.” About.com.
“Common Ticks.” Illinois Department of Public Health: Prevention & Control.
“Stop Ticks.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.