There’s no shortage of human blood-drinkers in the world of bugs, with the bed bugs, head lice, and fleas. Except for the maddening itching, these tiny Draculas are mostly harmless to those not suffering from specific allergies. Ticks, however, are a different story. You don’t have to be allergic to ticks to come down with a horrendous, tick-borne disease.
Ticks are parasites that satisfy all of their nutritional requirements with blood. To feed, a tick cuts a hole in the skin of its victim and inserts a harpoon-like anchor called a hypostome to remain firmly in place. The tick sucks blood until its disgusting body blows up like a tiny balloon. Ticks practice this technique on mammals, birds, domesticated animals, and, sometimes, reptiles and amphibians.
Ticks spread misery through bacterial infections, which are among the most serious tick-borne diseases. Lyme disease, spread by deer ticks, can cause fevers, arthritis, fatigue, and inflammation of the heart. The wood tick spreads Rocky Mountain spotted fever, marked by headaches, rashes, muscle pain, depression, and lethargy. Tick-borne viral infections include Colorado tick fever and the nasty Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever. Protozoan-borne diseases like the unpronounceable Cytauxzoonosis mostly affect wild felines like bobcats.
Most tick-borne diseases can be treated with antibiotics. However, Lyme disease is sometimes misdiagnosed because the symptoms resemble other conditions like multiple sclerosis, lupus, and even HIV.
Once a blood-engorged tick has drunk its fill, it will drop off its host. As such, many people who are bitten by ticks do not experience any symptoms, and some are unaware that they were bitten at all. But if you find a tick embedded in your flesh, or attached to your dog or cat, it must be removed with caution or else the head will remain in the skin thanks to the hypostome mouthpart. If you travel in tick-infested woods or meadows, it’s a good idea to carry a fine-tipped tweezers in your backpack, purse, or glove compartment. Tweezers allow you to grab the tick as close to the skin as possible and remove it with a straight, smooth motion. (Do not jerk, twist, or crush the tick as this might cause the mouthpart to break off under the skin.) After removal, the bite should be cleaned with rubbing alcohol, soap and water, or iodine.
Ticks are not insects or spiders, though they have eight legs. They are among the 48,000 species of mites that have had a very successful run on planet Earth. While your chance of getting Lyme disease is only about 1 out of 10,000, be sure to check yourself, your kids, and your pets after you’ve been out hiking – especially in the Northeast and western Wisconsin where deer ticks are most common.