May 23, 2016
Now that summer is underway, you may have already had a run-in with ticks. While ticks are part of summer, we need to protect ourselves and others - and not be blood donors.
Many people think of ticks as insects, but they are actually insect relatives known as arachnids. Ticks differ from insects by possessing eight legs instead of six, lacking antennae, and having only two body parts instead of three.
Types and kinds
The deer tick, sporadically found throughout the Midwest, is commonly known to transmit Lyme disease to humans. (Photo: StevenEllingson/istock/thinkstock)
There are two major groups of ticks: hard ticks and soft ticks. The common dog tick is a good example of a hard tick. It possesses a hard shield behind the mouthparts and when unfed, resembles a flat seed. Soft ticks lack a hard shield and resemble a raisin (do not taste like a raisin, however). Soft ticks rarely feed on humans.
The most common ticks you are likely to encounter and that transmit diseases to humans include the American dog tick, lone star tick, and black-legged (deer) tick. The brown dog tick is also common, but rarely affects humans.
Proper tick identification is important, so let’s review our tick biology and habits. The American dog tick (ADT) is the most common tick we can run in to. The ADT feeds on humans, is reddish brown and about 3/16 inch long. Females will have a large, silver spot on their back, but can grow to ½ inch long when engorged with blood. They are most active from April-June. The ADT can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF), tularemia, and ehrlichiosis to humans.
The long star tick (LST) is more common in southern regions of Illinois and feeds on a variety of warm-blooded hosts. The LST is much smaller (1/8 inch long), with a white spot on its back. It is active from April-July and mainly transmits RMSF.
Avoid walking through heavy grass and woody vegetation and sitting on the ground. Conduct a “tick check” after being outside, including your pets.
Our third tick, the blacklegged or deer tick, has three active stages that can feed on humans. Very small pin-sized young ticks feed on small mammals. As they grow, they migrate to larger mammals including people, and adults feed primarily on deer. Adults are reddish brown, and about 1/8 inch long. Like most ticks, they are commonly found in wooded areas along trails. The young ticks are active in spring thru fall and adults may be active in spring and fall. The deer tick is commonly known to transmit Lyme disease to humans. The deer tick is sporadically found throughout the Midwest.
Prevention is the best policy with ticks. Wear protective clothing in tick country. Apply an insect repellent containing 10-30% DEET to clothing, but avoid applying to exposed skin. Avoid walking through heavy grass and woody vegetation and sitting on the ground. Conduct a “tick check” after being outside, including your pets.
Finally, if you find a tick, remove it as soon as possible. Do not use a match, nail polish or your bare fingers to remove ticks. Apply a firm grasp with tweezers as close to the skin as possible and pull it straight out. Once you have removed the tick, wash the bite area with soap and water and apply an antiseptic to the bite area. If you develop an unexplained illness with a fever and/or rash, contact a physician immediately. Remember, ticks are part of the summer experience. By being aware and alert, we can still enjoy our time in the woods and nature and all it has to offer.
- Fredric Miller is a horticulture professor at Joliet Junior College, and a senior research scientist in entomology at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill. Email your tree questions to him at [email protected]
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