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This is how small a deer tick is. Photo: <a href="">Andre Karwath</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
This is how small a deer tick is. Photo: Andre Karwath, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Deer ticks: How they get on you, how to get them off

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Spring and early summer is the prime time of year for encounters with deer ticks, carriers of the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. While still uncommon in the Adirondack upcountry, deer ticks are plentiful in the North Country lowlands.

They're hard to see, and hard to remove safely. But not impossible. Martha Foley and Dr. Curt Stager talk about the life cycle of the deer tick, and practical ways to minimize exposure to Lyme disease.

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Martha Foley: Topic one: we have to talk about ticks, because everybody thought a cold winter would beat back the tick population. It didn’t, and in the valleys all around the Adirondacks, we’re really living with a new outdoor worry, and that is deer ticks. And maybe they aren’t in the Adirondacks yet, but I think they’re coming.

Curt Stager: Yeah, that’s the idea, that deer ticks are mainly a concern because they carry Lyme disease and that’s now a problem all through the Northeastern states. But the Adirondacks—fortunately so far—this little island where it’s hard to find deer ticks. So we’re concerned, of course, with the warming temperatures over time, they’ll be moving up there, too.

MF: I have had personal experience with deer ticks, which, you know, we’ve had dog ticks forever (the bigger ones). Deer ticks are pretty new to us, but they are all over the place; I find them on my cat, I found them on myself.

I talked to an entomologist down on Long Island, where there are literally millions of ticks, deer ticks, and where, you know, she doesn’t go some places. And she told me that the ticks like to be where the deer are, so the margins of woods, higher grass. And just the life cycle is really difficult for us to deal with because they start out so tiny.

CS: Yeah, a lot of folk will see a tick on your dog, let’s say, those are another kind that don’t carry the Lyme disease.  One of the problems with the deer ticks is they are so small, so it’s easy to miss them. And, of course, if they stay on you long enough, for several days, then that’s how they can transmit the disease, which is carried by bacteria.

So actually, the life cycle is a little bit complicated. There are different stages with different sizes and behaviors and it plays out over two years. But the basics are: the ones most likely to give you the Lyme disease are the intermediate growth stage; they’re about the size of a poppy seed.

MF: That’s pretty tiny, right? That is real small.

CS: So it’s easy to miss them. You’re most likely to get them in late spring, early summer. They’re usually in low vegetation like grasses, meadow stuff. And they’re mainly out there for small mammals, mice and things like that. But if you’re brushing through there, they crawl up on a grass blade and wave their front legs.

MF: They call that questing. I just found that really creepy. When they climb up on the branch, waving their arms, waiting for you to come by.

CS: “Come get me!” So they have little hooks on their little claws, so they can hook onto you. They can also smell you, your breath (the carbon dioxide) with the tips of their legs. So those are the ones most likely to give you the Lyme disease, which they picked up from a blood meal on a small animal. The reason they’re more likely to give it to you than the larger adults is because they’re harder to see, so it's easy to miss them.

MF: I have to tell you, all the tips say tuck your pants into your socks, wear light colored clothing, so on and so forth. They are so small, I don’t know how you would ever see them on your clothing. You can see them on yourself if you’re looking really closely. This woman told me, she sprays her pants and her shoes with a DEET-based repellant, that helps her feel more comfortable about going outside, but it really is something to be really, really careful about.

CS: Yeah, there are some basic rules of thumb.

MF: First of all, you can’t brush them off your clothing. If you shake your clothes, they’re not going to come off.

CS: They’re not going to come off. If you are concerned about it, having DEET, light-colored clothes so that you can see them better, tuck your pant cuffs into your socks, and things like that. But, of course, the bottom line is to check.

And also, experts in the field want people to know that if you do find one of them on you, there’s a right way and a wrong way to get them off. So the disease is transmitted by bacteria in their gut, so if you do what a folk remedy would be, let's say put some Vaseline over them or put some nail polish to get them to back out, yes, they will eventually back out and be gone. But the problem is, they’ll release the bacteria from their gut into the wound, and that gives you the illness.

MF: Basically, you want them off you as soon as you can get them off, and we have a tick-puller, two sizes actually, it’s like a teeny crowbar or the head of the claw, a hammer claw. And you slip that crowbar between the tick and the flesh, and you slowly twist them out, so you get all of the parts of them out of you or your cat or whatever.

CS: Yeah, that would be one way. And if you just have some forceps, you just grab one at the base; don’t grab them at the back end because the same thing will happen—the bacteria will come out of their gut—just pull them out. And actually, I’m told by experts that even if a little piece of the mouth happened to break off, it’s no big deal. The main thing is, just don’t squeeze them too hard and transmit the bacteria.

MF: Yeah, well, and the important thing to remember is to keep looking, because they are out there. And you, too, in the Adirondacks will be finding them soon. You will be doing some research, am I right?

CS: Yes, researchers at the Trudeau Institute and my colleague Lee Ann Sporn and others at Paul Smith’s College are investigating this. So far, we haven’t found a lot of deer ticks up in the high country, but they are certainly common down in the lowlands.

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