Uptick in tick population could produce serious illness

A graphic of ticks.
A graphic of ticks. Special to the Sun Herald

Even though they will readily cozy up and will quickly become attached to us, ticks are not our friends.

There are over 850 species in the world and, next to mosquitoes, they are the most common vector for human diseases.

These small blood-suckers aren’t insects. They’re arachnids and are related to spiders, mites, and scorpions. There are two basic kinds of ticks: hard ticks and soft ticks. Hard ticks have a hard outer shell that gives them their characteristic shield-like form.

Soft ticks are more sack-like and have a soft, very expandable skin allowing them to consume up to 50 times their weight in blood. Both kinds are a nuisance to humans and their warm-blooded pets.

Ticks are ambushers, lurking about in low-lying brush and grasses waiting for their prey to wander by. They don’t run. They don’t hop. And they do not fly. The only way they can get on you or Rover is through direct contact.

Ticks have a harpoon-shaped mouth with reversed barbs. These mouthparts have evolved to allow the tick easy entry into your skin while making it extremely difficult to pull them out. Added to this is a glue ticks secrete called “cementum.”

Cementum is so strong that researchers are conducting experiments trying to synthesize the adhesive. Medical scientists believe cementum has the potential to eliminate the need for sutures.

Because of the shape of the mouth and the use of cementum, ticks are difficult to detach. Over the years, many methods have been tried to remove them with varying degrees of success.

Many of these methods have turned out to be counterproductive. For example, applying Vasoline or nail polish remover to make the tick back out of the skin actually causes it to become anoxic, resulting in it throwing up into you.

This could have the undesirable effect of the tick injecting an infectuous agent into your body hours before it normally would. For example, it usually takes around 24 hours for Lyme disease to develop. Applying a heated needle or cigarette to the tick’s backside is another method that’s has been around for a long time.

This may work. But more often, the tick will either be burned to the point where it ruptures or as with the Vasoline, it may regurgitate contaminated stomach fluid into the host.

This method can also result in a trip to the emergency room for treatment of a self-inflicted burn. Applying acetone or alcohol is also ineffective.

To successfully remove a tick, you can try one of three methods.

▪ 1. Use a small set of tweezers. Grab the tick as close to the point of attachment as possible and pull slowly but steadily.

▪ 2. Use a flat stick shaped somewhat like a screwdriver with a small notch in its tip. The stick can be used to lever out the tick. This method is especially good for removing ticks from dogs.

▪ 3. Favored by physicians and vets alike, use a thin thread or fishing line. An overhand knot is made on one end and is placed over the tick’s head. Slowly close the loop and pull steadily until the tick comes off. When removing the tick, do not squeeze or crush the parasite. Don’t jerk the tick and wear gloves. Tick fluid can be highly infective. Wash your hand thoroughly after handling the tick and dispose of it properly. Don’t just throw it in the trash. These suckers can climb, remember?

If you know you’re going to be trekking through tick territory, tuck your pants into your boots or socks and tuck your shirt into your pants.

Wear light-colored clothes. This helps to spot the little blood-suckers as they’re crawling around. Use a repellent containing DEET or picaridin on your skin and permethrin on your pants, socks and shoes to repel or kill them.

Most species of ticks will roam about for hours looking for just the right place to snuggle down for a good meal. That perfect spot is most often the neck, the scalp and hard to reach spots like the armpits, behind the knee and the groin area. At the end of your meanderings, check yourself for any of the wee beasties.

Here in the South, ticks are a fact of life. But, with proper vigilance and the right precautions, they won’t be a problem.