If you live in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic, or North Central U.S., early summer is a time when you probably are already on alert for the possibility of Lyme disease. The illness is caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi, which is spread from carrier animals to humans through the bite of a tick.
In most of the country, the tick species that serves as the vector is the deer tick, Ixodes scapularis, but along the Pacific coast, where the presence of the disease has spread in recent years, the tick that carries the bacteria is the western black-legged tick, Ixodes pacificus. Both insects are small, flat-bodied insects about 1/10 inch long, roughly the size of an apple seed. When engorged with blood, they can be somewhat larger. It has the familiar flat body of all ticks and is light brown at the abdomen and a darker brown near the head.
Getting rid of the disease-carrying deer tick is of intense interest over the widening regions where the insect is found.
The Biology of Deer Ticks
The deer tick that transmits the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria begins its life cycle when adult ticks lay eggs ground litter in spring. In mid-summer, the eggs hatch into tiny, almost microscopic larvae that quickly attach themselves to small host animals, such as chipmunks and mice, where they attach to the skin and feed on blood for about three to five days before dropping off again and beginning a molting cycle as they grow. As the larvae achieve nymph stage, they attach and begin to feed on larger mammals, including various species of deer, in which the bacteria thrive without causing harm to the animal.
The bacteria is passed between the carrier animals and humans via the saliva of the nymphal tick when it happens to attaches to a person during its natural feeding behavior. People usually pick up deer ticks when walking through tall grass or in the woods in areas where deer are found. It is at this point the bacteria becomes serious since humans are not natural hosts and their bodies react to infection through a complex series of immune responses.
A nymphal tick that survives will eventually achieve adult status, when it is roughly the size of an apple seed. While it can still transmit the disease, the adult tick is by now a much larger insect that is spotted more quickly and thus usually removed before infection can occur. Thus it is the late spring and summer months when deer ticks in their nymphal stage are of most danger to humans.
After mating in fall, adult ticks take cover under leaf litter over the winter, and lay their eggs the following spring to continue the life cycle. The new larvae will not carry the Lyme disease bacteria, however, until they pick it up from host animals as they progress through the early summer feeding-molting cycle.
The Danger of Lyme Disease
It is estimated that 300,000 people a year contract Lyme disease through tick bites, The disease begins with a localized rash, often with a bullseye shape, that appears on the skin shortly after a tick bite. The bite site is often at an area where there are skin folds, such as at the waistline, behind the knee. This visible rash occurs in about 80 percent of infection cases, but it is not very painful, so it can often be overlooked.
Following this initial localized infection, Lyme disease can disseminate to create a much more serious disease with symptoms that sometimes include neurological symptoms resembling meningitis or even MS. Long-term arthritis-like symptoms are thought to develop in as many as 60 percent of infected people who are not treated.
Thus, Lyme disease is a very serious illness, and eliminating or avoiding the deer tick is important in places the pest is found. In roughly 6 percent of all cases, infection is entirely asymptomatic and causes no rash or long-term disease, but most people will have varying degrees of Lyme disease if they are infected with the bacteria.
It is best to seek medical advice if you have been bitten by any kind of tick, and if possible, you should keep the tick to show to your doctor. You will be most likely to find this tick on your body under clothing in areas where there are skin folds, around the waist and legs, in armpits, around ankles. It's a good idea to examine yourself in the shower after any outdoor outing in areas where ticks are present and to wash clothing in hot water.
3 Ways to Get Rid of Deer Ticks
Removing a Deer Tick From Your Body
There is really no reason to panic if you find a deer tick on your body because it must be attached for 24 to 36 hours in order to transfer bacteria in sufficient amounts to cause disease. If you have been outdoors in a tick-infested area, check yourself at the end of each day. Hunters should be especially careful after a day in the woods or grasslands.
If the tick is actually attached to the skin, consult a doctor immediately after removing it. Preserve the insect, if possible, so the doctor can identify the species. Even if the tick is removed immediately, the doctor will likely prescribe a regimen of antibiotics to prevent the possibility of disease. But you are very unlikely to develop Lyme disease with this combination of early removal and prompt treatment.
According to CDC guidelines, this is the best method for removing a deer tick found on your body:
- Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible.
- Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don’t twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouth-parts to break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, remove the mouth parts with tweezers. If you are unable to remove the mouth easily with clean tweezers, leave it alone and let the skin heal.
- After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.
- Never crush a tick with your fingers. Dispose of a live tick by putting it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag/container, wrapping it tightly in tape, or flushing it down the toilet.
Getting Rid of Wild Animals
Deer ticks will disappear if you get rid of the wild animals that host them. Fencing, scarecrows, and mechanical repellant devices that chase deer and other wild animals away from your property can prevent deer ticks from being a problem—at least in the areas immediately around your house.
If you have a problem with deer ticks in your area, it's best to also get rid of bird feeders and other feeding stations that attract the wild animals that carry ticks.
Spraying the Landscape for Deer Ticks
Chemical sprays are available that can kill ticks in your landscape. Focus on applying these sprays on border areas where there is tall grass and brush. The most effective products will contain an acaricide chemical known to be effective on invertebrate pests such as mites and ticks. Focus your control measures during the summer months when deer ticks are most active.
Many commercial chemical products, often advertised as "tick and flea" killers, are actually broad-spectrum insecticides that will also kill butterflies, bees, and other beneficial insects. They also have varying degrees of toxicity to humans. If possible, look for a product that targets ticks only. Responsible homeowners will want to limit the use of such chemicals to situations where deer ticks are a real and present danger. Cautious homeowners should consider more organic sprays, such as Wondercide, which are usually based on various citrus oils. These can be effective against ticks when applied regularly.
How to Prevent Deer Ticks
Preventing deer ticks is best accomplished by limiting areas where tick-carrying deer are allowed to freely roam. Where practical, deer fencing can be set up in high-risk areas, such as parks and playgrounds frequented by children and pets.
There are also tick control methods such as the 4-poster device. Although these are expensive and usually managed by government agencies, such devices work fairly effectively by baiting deer with cobs of corn or another food; during feeding, permethrin-laden rollers apply pesticide to the necks of the deer. This pesticide then spreads over the entire animal to kills any ticks, Over time, such carefully managed programs can greatly reduce deer tick numbers in a region.
While hunters can perform a valuable function by reducing the number of tick-carrying deer in an area, be aware that you are at increased personal risk for picking up deer ticks if you hunt in brushy, grassy areas and are actively skinning or dressing out game animals you kill. Deer ticks are also known to feed on migratory birds, small mammals, and even lizards.
Follow these additional tips to prevent deer ticks on an individual scale:
- Wear light-colored clothing with long pants and sleeves.
- Tuck your pants into your socks, and your shirt into your pants.
- Use spray repellents as directed on the label.
- Walk along the center of trails and avoid contact with shrubs or brush.
- Conduct frequent clothing checks, and carefully inspect your body for ticks.
- Once home, dry clothing on the highest temperature setting for 10 minutes to kill any ticks.
- Keep pets from tick-infested areas and check them before entering the house.
- Mow lawns regularly and remove lawn debris and leaf litter.
- Keep border areas trimmed of tall grass and rampant brush.
- Discourage rodents by reducing cover (e.g., wood piles) and food sources (e.g., birdseed, compost).
- Move lawn furniture and children’s toys away from the yard edges and wooded areas.
Deer Ticks vs. Western Black-Legged Ticks
For most of the country, it is the deer tick (also known as the black-legged tick) that causes Lyme disease. In the Pacific West, however, it is the western black-legged tick that carries the bacteria that causes the disease. It makes little difference which type of tick that bites you since the disease is the same and the techniques for getting rid of the ticks are the same.
However, if you are interested in precise identification, look for the coloration: The western black-legged tick will be predominately dark brown over the entire body, with a smallish spot of reddish-brown on the lower back. This is somewhat different than the deer tick, which has a notably lighter color over most of the lower body.
The same methods used to control deer ticks will also work for western black-legged ticks—and for most other ticks, for that matter.
Do All Deer Ticks Carry Disease-Causing Bacteria?
In one study of a region where deer ticks are plentiful (New York), it was found that about 50 percent of all ticks were carrying the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Even where the disease common, not all deer ticks will carry the bacteria. Thus, it is possible that even if you have been bitten by a deer tick, you have not been infected.
How Did Lyme Disease Get Its Name?
Lyme disease is named for the region where the infection disease was first identified—Old Lyme, Connecticut, in 1975.
Can You Get Lyme Disease From an Infected Person?
There is no evidence that you can get Lyme disease from contact with an infected person, such as through touching, kissing, or sexual contact. However, there are very rare instances where a pregnant woman who is untreated for Lyme disease has passed the bacteria on to her unborn child.
Can My Dog or Cat Get Lyme Disease?
Dogs, cats, and other warm-blooded pets can get Lyme disease in the same way as humans do: through the bite of an infected tick. The disease can be serious in pets, and a veterinarian can perform a blood test to verify the infection.
Can I Get Lyme Disease From My Pet?
There is no evidence that that pets spread the disease directly to their owners, but it is possible for ticks biting infected pets might then bite humans and infect them. Therefore, it's wise to be very careful about allowing pets to roam in tick-infested areas.
Is There a Blood Test for Lyme Disease?
The CDC recommends a two-part testing procedure to verify that Lyme disease is present. However, the tests detect the antibodies for the bacteria, not the bacteria itself, so if the test is performed too soon after infection, it may give negative results since the antibodies have not yet developed.
Are There Systemic Tick Killers?
There are a variety of chewable medicines, topical sprays, and shampoos that can be effective at killing ticks on pets. Consult your veterinarian on the best options. Under no circumstances, though, should these products be used on humans.
Is There a Vaccine for Lyme Disease?
There are vaccinations to help prevent dogs from getting Lyme disease, but no vaccinations for humans. However, Valneva and Pfizer are conducting clinical trials of a new human vaccine, known as VLA15.
If you live in the Northeast, MId-Atlantic, or Midwest, dogs that spend time outdoors are especially susceptible to Lyme disease, and vaccination should be considered, Your dog will need to be revaccinated yearly to ensure continued protection.