Summer is tick time again

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Of all the creepy, crawly creatures in the natural world, the mosquito undoubtedly takes first-place honors as the one that causes the most discomfort and illness in humans. Second place in this regard goes to the tick. It should be noted that ticks are not insects, but belong to the group of jointed-legged animals that includes spiders, scorpions and similar creatures

As spring evolves into summer, tick activity greatly increases, and those of us who frequently commune with nature are liable to be attacked by these blood-suckers. When a tick attacks you, several days of feeding are required before it has filled its body to repletion. At least a mosquito finishes its blood meal in a few minutes. As is the case of all blood-sucking insects and ticks, nutritious blood is required for the development of the eggs.

One does not feel the bite of a tick, as when the vicious mouthparts are inserted into our skin, a local anesthetic in injected, and it may be several hours or days before the feeding tick is discovered adhering to various portions of our anatomy.

The mouthparts of the tick are especially adapted to the blood-sucking job and are armed with rows of recurred teeth, which prevent them from being easily dislodged during the feeding process. If we grab an attached tick and unceremoniously yank it loose, the embedded hooks usually cause the mouthparts to break loose and remain in the skin. The mouthparts are not easily absorbed by the body, and complications sometimes result with minor surgery being necessary to remove them.

There are many suggested ways of removing a tick, but most of the ones prescribed are effective only a small percentage of the time. Earlier it was suggested that a glowing cigarette be applied to the rear end of the tick, and that would cause it to disengage. (Who smokes anymore and has a cigarette handy?) Another common remedy was to coat the tick’s body with Vaseline, the idea being that the breathing pores will be plugged up, and the irritated tick will back out of the skin. Some tick “experts” suggest unscrewing it, and point out you should unscrew clockwise north of the equator and counterclockwise south of the equator (nonsense, of course).

The best way to remove an embedded tick is to grasp it firmly with a pair of forceps and slowly and gently pull it loose. This procedure will almost always remove the tick along with its mouthparts, especially if prior to applying pressure with the forceps. The body of the tick is moved in a wig-wag fashion to loosen its hold.

In addition to causing discomfort, ticks transmit several serious diseases of man. In the United States, we have to contend with Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia (rabbit fever), tick-borne relapsing fever, Q fever, and Colorado tick fever, to name the most important. In addition, recent studies have shown that ticks play an important role in the epidemiology of the West Nile virus that in recent years has plagued most of the United Sates. This virus is transmitted to humans by mosquitoes after they have fed on infected birds, and ticks play a role in transmitting the virus from bird to bird.

A factor that makes ticks especially important as disease vectors is a phenomenon called transovarial transmission. This means that if a female tick is infected with a disease agent, it is transmitted to her offspring via her eggs, making the newly hatched ticks potential vectors. Transovarial transmission has been suspected but has never been definitely proven with insect disease vectors.

Ticks must be actively feeding for several hours before infectious agents are transmitted, so it is important to carefully check your body for ticks every few hours when you may be exposed to them. There is little chance that it has had time to infect you with a disease organism if it is promptly removed.

In “tick country,” the pant legs should be tucked into the boots, and long sleeves and a hat should be worn. The use of DEET repellent around openings in the clothing should be standard practice when afield, but, in spite of these precautions, ticks will sometimes find a way to “stick it to us.” It’s the nature of the beast.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the June 7-13, 2006, issue

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