HumBug: Ticks


Ticks on an alligator lizard. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • Ticks on an alligator lizard.

As the song says, “Spring is in the air.” It fills my mind with visions of birds migrating, flowers blooming and ticks! I was reminded of this today taking a photo of a local alligator lizard in my back yard.

I am not a person who says, “There is room for every living thing in my world.” Nope, I hate ticks, partly because I'm extremely allergic to them, partly because they're vectors for illnesses like lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and a new one from Kentucky, Bourbon virus (not named for the liquor, but for the county where it was first discovered), and because they give bugs a bad name. They are more closely related to spiders than insects, and even more closely related to mites.

A tick preserved under tape. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A tick preserved under tape.
If you're unfortunate enough to get a tick attached to you or your pet, there are a few things you should know.

1. Don't squeeze the tick's body.
2. Don't kill the tick while it is attached.
3. Most traditional methods of inducing the tick to release its hold don't work and can make matters worse.

Why all these cautions? You don't want to cause the critter to disgorge the contents of its gut into you, which squeezing, prodding and coating with Vaseline or heating with a match head can do. Regurgitated tick juice will certainly contain alien proteins which can cause allergic reactions, and the juice may contain disease organisms. This happened to me. I noticed a tick on my leg in the shower. It was already dead but still firmly attached. I removed it. The next day my leg started to swell. In two days time it was so swollen my Carhartt work pants fit skin tight. I went to the hospital, where the staff gave me oral antibiotics that didn't work. Two courses of intravenous antibiotics later, the swelling started to recede. So now I pay attention.

The mouth of the beastie. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • The mouth of the beastie.

Want to know why they're so difficult to remove? Take a look at the closeup of the tick's head. That beak is designed be driven in and hold on like a barbed fishhook. Pulling on the body usually just breaks the head off, leaving the mouth parts firmly embedded in the wound.

So what can you do? According to the Centers for Disease Control, the best thing to do is use narrow tweezers, grasp it as close to your skin as possible and pull it out.
From Down Under, where ticks may be an even bigger problem than hereabouts, the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIAS) suggests freezing them with an aerosol starting fluid, like you use to start a recalcitrant lawn mower to freeze the critter before removal. Although this method is not sanctioned for human use in the US, there is a product for use on pets. I have yet to be bitten since reading about it, so I cannot vouch for it. 

If you wish to keep the tick to show medical professionals or your close friends, I suggest sealing it between two layers of clear plastic tape. It makes for easy handling, seals in all potential disease organisms, and leaves the specimen easily examined through the tape. All my photos of captured specimens were prepared in this fashion. I do not bother killing them first, because I really don't care.

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