Keep Ticks at Bay in the Great Outdoors

By now most people know that the deer tick is responsible for carrying and transmitting Lyme disease among animals. Lyme disease is a debilitating inflammatory condition that can cause body and joint aches, fever, pain, itching, and lethargy. If Lyme disease is diagnosed in the early stages, it can be cured with antibiotics. Without treatment, however, complications involving the joints, heart, and nervous system can occur. To understand how Lyme disease is transmitted, one must first understand the bug that is responsible for spreading it.

Ticks are commonly thought of as insects, but they're actually arachnids -- like spiders and scorpions. Adults have four pairs of legs and no antennae. Ticks start out as an egg, turn into a six-legged nymph, molt into a larger, eight-legged nymph, then grow into an adult. Blood meals are behind the growth of the tick.

There are two main types of ticks: Soft and hard ticks. Hard ticks, like the common dog tick, has a hard, protective outer shell. It resembles a flat seed when it has not yet fed. Soft ticks do not have the hard shell, and they look more like a large raisin. Soft ticks generally feed on birds and bats, which is why they are not often encountered by people. Ticks that are engorged after feeding can be quite large and much more visible.

Attaching firmly to their host of choice, ticks eat slowly -- sometimes over the course of days. As such, they may go unnoticed for a while, which gives the tick more time to feed and potentially spread bacteria harboring inside of the parasite.

Ticks cannot jump or fly. They lie in wait on the tips of brush or grass for an animal to come by. When the animal brushes up against the shrubs or grass, the tick quickly lets go and climbs upon the host. The tick may continue to climb until it finds the desired spot to latch on to, generally a dark, warm place. It's common to find ticks behind the knees, under the arms, or if they travel upward, on the scalp behind the ears.

Ticks are active from early spring until fall. They can be found if the temperature is above 45 F.

The types of ticks people generally encounter are the dog tick, the deer (black-legged) tick and the Lone Star tick. All of these have the potential to spread diseases.

The best way to prevent tick bites and diseases is to avoid becoming a host for a tick. Follow these guidelines:

* When hiking, stay on the trail and avoid tall grasses or brushing against shrubs.

* Wear light-colored clothing, preferably long pants and sleeves. Tuck pants into socks and secure to prevent ticks from getting underneath and on the skin.

* Use a tick-repellent product, primarily on clothes and sparingly on the skin.

* Check yourself for ticks after spending time outdoors.

* Use flea and tick prevention on dogs year-round. Check your dog regularly for ticks.

* If a tick is found embedded, remove it promptly. The mouthparts of a tick are barbed and may remain embedded and lead to infection at the bite site if not removed promptly. The best way to remove a tick is to grasp it firmly with tweezers as close to the skin as possible and gently, but firmly, pull it straight out. A tick may have secretions that spread diseases, so don't touch it with your bare fingers.

* Do not burn the tick with a match or cover it with petroleum jelly or nail polish. Ticks can be safely disposed of by placing them in a container of soapy water or alcohol, sticking them to tape or flushing them down the toilet. If you want to have the tick identified, put it in a small vial of alcohol.

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