It is important to protect yourself against tick bites to prevent disease. In this article you’ll learn how ticks behave, what types of ticks there are, which pathogens they carry and how you can follow simple prevention tips such as the use tick repellents when you are outdoors. At the bottom of the article we provide pictures that can help you to identify ticks.
What are ticks?
Contrary to the belief ticks are not insects but spider-like arachnids. There are many different species of ticks. Ticks live of the blood of animals and sometimes human beings. Adult ticks have eight legs and their bodies can swell up quite a bit when they feed.
The blood of the host animal may contain germs which are then transferred to the feeding ticks and can be passed on to humans later on. Ticks can carry many different types of bacteria, viruses and parasites and are therefor called the dirty needles of nature.
Ticks surive the winter by living underground and in leave piles. They prefer warm and moist places and seek out brushes and grass or spots near the paths or in the undergrowth. It is widely believed that ticks drop out of trees but that is not true.
How do ticks get on to you?
Ticks ambush their hosts. A tick will crawl up a plant stem or tall piece of grass and extend its front legs. A tick has sensory structures in its front legs with which it can detect an approaching host. When a tick sits on a piece of vegetation with its front legs extended it is sniffing the air for your scent. A tick can detect the carbon dioxide you exhale, the ammonia you sweat and sense the changes in temperature as you approach.
A tick grabs hold of your leg as you brush past the vegetation. Most ticks wait passively for you to walk by but some ticks are aggresive hunters and will come into your direction as they smell you. Scientists use this behavior in their advantage when they drag a square white felt over the ground. Ticks in its path will sense the movement and grab onto the felt. Against the white backdrop they are visible and can be collected and counted.
Life stages of a tick
Ticks generally have four life stages: eggs, larvae, nymphs and adults. During each stage, the tick must take a blood meal after which they enter a dormant period before they enter the next stage.
Ticks can take up to 3 years to complete their life cycle and require many hosts. Most ticks will die because they don’t find a host for their next blood meal. Ticks can feed on mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.
Most ticks prefer to have a different host animal at each stage of their life.
When the tick creeps from the egg it is called a larva. At the larval stage, the tick has 6 legs instead of 8. The larvae crawl, after having come out of the egg, on grass or a plant. When a host comes by they cling to it and find a place on that host to feed. After the blood meal they drop off. Larvae are not infected with Lyme disease. However, larvae can be infected with Borrelia miyamotoi which causes relapsing fever.
After the blood meal, the larva enters the second stage and become a nymph tick. It re-searches for a host, which repeats the process. The nymph creeps on grass or a plant and waits until a host walks along to cling to it. Most infections with Lyme disease are caused by the bite of a nymph during spring or summer. If the larva has fed on an infected host, the nymph is infected and can transmit the disease during a blood meal in subsequent stages.
After the blood meal at the nymph stage, the tick reaches maturity. Males do not feed at this stage and are actively seeking female ticks for reproduction. The female produces thousands of eggs after her blood meal before she dies. Out of these eggs come from larvae, which repeats the cycle.
Life cycle of a tick
The lifecycle of blacklegged ticks takes about two years. During this time, they go through the four life stages: egg, larva, nymph, and adult. After the eggs hatch, the ticks must have a blood meal at every stage to survive. Blacklegged ticks can feed from mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. The lifecycle of western blacklegged ticks is a little bit longer and takes about three years.
In spring adult females lay eggs. The larvae feed on birds, mice and other small rodents during spring and summer.
In the fall they reach the nymph stage. During the fall and winter the nymphs become inactive. In the spring these nymphs become active again, and now feed more often on larger animals such as dogs, deer and humans during spring and summer.
During autumn they enter the adult stage and the females will look for a blood meal to lay eggs in the spring while male adults seek a female partner to reproduce.
Different types of ticks
BLACKLEGGED TICK Ixodes scapularis
|Blacklegged ticks take two years to complete their life cycle and are predominantly found forests. Their distribution relies on white-tailed deer.|
Adult males and females are active October-May as long as the daytime temperature is about freezing. These adults prefer larger hosts such as deer and they quest on the tips of branches of low growing shrubs. Adult females readily attack humans and pets. Engorged female ticks lay up to 1500-2000 eggs in May and then die. Larvae emerge from the eggs in the summer. Males do not feed.
Nymphs are active May-August and are most commonly found in moist leaf litter in wooded areas. Nymphs typically feed on smaller animals such as rodents and they require 3-4 days to fully engorge. Nymphs also attach to and feed on humans, cats and dogs.
Larvae are active July-September and can be found in moist leaf litter. Larvae hatch pathogen free from the eggs. (Borrelia miyamotoi is an exception). They remain in the leaf litter and feed on all small- medium or large mammals or any species of birds.
Location: Widely distributed across the eastern United States.
Pathogens: Lyme disease, Borrelia mayonii, Borrelia miyamotoi, Babesia, Ehrlichia, Anaplasma, Powassan Virus
WESTERN BLACKLEGGED TICK Ixodes pacificus
|Adult male and female ticks are active October-May and prefer an environment with an abbundance of short vegetation. They may be found in grasslands, woodland grass or brush areas. They prefer to climb vegetation and wait for a host to pass by. As such they are encountered at the border of trails, in parklands, open grasslands and in areas that are able to maintain a deer population. Female adults will consume blood meals from medium to large-sized mammals and then deposit eggs in areas of leaf litter or soil.|
Nymphs prefer a habitat of dense woodlands littered with leaves and fir needles. It is common to encounter these western black legged nymphs in areas with large amounts of shed leaves on the ground.
Larvae usually feed on small vertebrates such as lizards and birds. It takes approximately three years for this tick to complete its life cycle.
Location: Along the pacific coast of the United States, particularly northern California and southwestern Canada, especially British Columbia. Other states in which the tick has been found include Oregon, Washington, Utah, Nevadah and Arizona.
Pathogens: Lyme disease, Borrelia mayonii, Borrelia miyamotoi, Anaplasma, Babesia
AMERICAN DOG TICK Dermacentor variabilis
|American dog ticks are found in areas with little to no tree cover such as grassy fields and shrubland as well as along walkways and trials. They feed on a variety of hosts ranging from mice to deer. Nymphs and adults can carry Rocky Mountain Spotted fever and Tularemia. American dog ticks can survive up to two years without feeding.|
Adult male and female ticks are active April-August and are mostly found in tall grass and low lying brush. They feed on medium sized hosts including raccoons, skunks, opossums, coyotes and domestic dogs, cats and humans. When females are replete they drop into leaf litter where they can lay up to 4000 eggs before dying. Both male and female ticks carry and spread diseases.
Nymphs are active May-July and feed on small animals such as mice, voles, skunks and rabbits. Nymphal dog ticks rarely attach to humans. Once engorged nymphs drop into grass/meadow thatch and leaf litter.
Larvae are active April-September and are questing in leaf litter for a host. Larvae overwinter and are most abundant in spring and early summer. After a bloodmeal lasting 3-4 days the drop into leaf litter and mold into nymphs.
Location: East of the Rocky Mountains and limited areas on the Pacific Coast.
Pathogens: Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Tularemia
BROWN DOG TICK Rhipicephalus sanguineus
|You can encounter brown dog ticks throughout the world. They can be found throughout the United States but are encountered more frequently in the southern states. They occur mainly in and around settlements and infest homes, animal pens and dog kennels. These ticks spend their entire life cycle indoors. Under optimal conditions they complete their life cycle in three months. Controlling brown tick infestations is often difficult and requires treating the pets, the house, the yard and sanitizing the house by focusing on vacuuming. It may take several months to eradicate the infestation.|
All life stages can transmit Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever to dogs and humans and canine ehrlichiosis and canine babesiosis to dogs.
Adults, nymphs and larvae can be found at all times throughout the year. They prefer to feed on dogs but also feed on other animals and occassionally humans. Adult males feed for a short time but females feed for about a week before becoming fully engorged. Female dog ticks can lay up to 4000 eggs. They are often laid in cracks and crevices in or around the house. When nymphs or larvae are fully engorged they drop off and hide in and around furniture, windows, edges of rugs, house siding and foundations.
Pathogens: Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
LONE STAR TICK Amblyomma americanum
|Lone star ticks are mostly found in woodlands with dense undergrowth and around animal resting areas. Larvae do not carry disease but nymphs and adults can transmit Ehrlichia, Rocky Mountains Spotted Fever, Tularemia, STARI Borreliosis and certain viruses. Lone star ticks are aggressive pets and actively bite human beings.|
Adults are active April-August. They prefer to feed on larger animals such as dogs, coyotes, deer and humans. They hunt from tips of low growing vegetation such as tall grass or low hanging branches and twigs. Females need 10 days to become fully engorged and can lay 2000-3000 eggs.
Nymphs are active May-August. They prefer coyotes, raccoons, squirrels, turkeys and some birds as well as cats, dogs and humans. Nymphs can seemingly swarm up pant legs and become attached in less than 10 minutes.
Larvae are active July-September. They prefer cats, dogs, deer, coyotes, raccoons, squirrels, turkeys and small birds.
Location: Southeastern and eastern United States.
Pathogens: STARI (Southern tick-associated rash illness), Ehrlichia, Heartland virus, Bourbon virus, Tularemia, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
GULF COAST TICK Amblyomma maculatum
|Gulf Coast ticks can be found in coastal areas along the Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico. These ticks are able to transmit disease to humans. They feed primarily on animals but will readily feed on human beings. Adults are active June-October.|
The larvae and nymphs feed on birds and small rodents while adults feed on deer and larger wildlife. Nymphs are active December-March and larvae October-January.
Location: Coastal areas along the Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico
Pathogens: Spotted Fever Rickettsiosis
ROCKY MOUNTAIN WOOD TICK Dermacentor andersoni
|Rocky Mountain Wood ticks are mainly found in shrublands, wooded areas, open grassland and along trails. All life stages can transmit Colorado Tick Fever and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Tularemia to humans. The saliva of this tick contains a neurotoxin that can occasionally cause tick paralysis that dissipates within 24-72h after tick removal. These ticks take 2-3 years to complete their life cycle.|
Adults are active January-November but are most active during spring and summer. Adult wood ticks can survive up to two years without feeding. They are found knee high questing on tips of vegetation. Female adults can lay up to 6000 eggs.
Nymphs are active March-October and can survive a year without feeding. They prefer to feed on rodents and rarely attach to pets and humans.
Larvae are active March-October depending on latitude. They prefer to feed on the blood of rodents.
Location: Rocky Mountain states and southwestern Canada.
Pathogens: Colorado Tick Fever, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Tularemia
How to prevent tick bites
Many areas of the United States are at high risk for Lyme disease. People who live/work/recreate in Lyme-endemic areas or tick habitat may be exposed to ticks in a variety of settings – campsites, parks, golf courses, sports fields, and their own back yards. Spending time outside gardening, hiking, walking your dog or hunting can increase your risk of encountering ticks. Pet ownership is associated with an increased risk of Lyme disease.
Ticks occur year-round but they are most active during spring, summer and early fall (April-September) but adult female ticks can also infect individuals during the winter. Ticks live in grassy and brushy and wooded areas and on animals. The best way to ensure you don’t get bitten is by eliminating close encounters.
- Avoid wooded areas with high grass and leaf litter. Walk in the center of trials.
- Wear long sleeved shirts.
- Wear white or light colored clothing to make it easier to spot ticks.
- Spray tick repellent on clothes and shoes before entering the woods.
- Wear long pants and tuck your socks in your pants.
- Wear closed footwear.
Maintain your yard
By reducing the tick population around the home, one can minimize the risk that family members or friends will be bitten by a tick.
You can place a deer fence high enough to prevent deer and small animals from entering your yard. If this is impractical you can remove plants and trees that attract deer to your yard such as apple, pear and cherry trees, rhododendrons, rose bushes, pansies, daisies, lilies, tulips, and black-eyed susans. Deer are almost always infested with feeding ticks. These ticks drop off deer wherever they happen to be, whether in flower beds or lawns.
The majority of ticks found on a property are located in close proximity to a lawn’s perimeter with woodlands, stone walls, perennial beds and garden plantings. Pesticide spraying of these particular areas can help prevent getting tick bites in your own yard. The most common pesticides used for tick control are permethrin, befenthrin and cyfluthrin. For those not inclined to use synthetic chemicals, natural organic spray alternatives are available, such as cedar oil and a mixture of rosemary and peppermint oils. Another great tip is the placement of tick tubes.
Keep the grass in your yard short and create low risk zones for dining and recreational use. Homeowners should also eliminate heavy brush and ground cover close to home and replace it with mulch and other less dense alternatives.
Read more about tick proofing your yard in this blogpost.
Chemical tick repellents
Insecticides and repellents reduce the risk of a tick bite. Insecticides kill ticks; repellents encourage them to
leave before biting. Look for products with one of these ingredients:
Permethrin is sold online and at outdoor stores. It can be used on clothing, sleeping bags, tents and other outdoor gear but not on the skin. It remains effective for 2-6 weeks and through multiple washings. Permethrin is a non-staining, odorless water based repellent. Permethrin specifically targets the nervous system of ticks but has low toxicity for mammals.
Picaridin is a newer tick repellent that’s as effective as DEET, use concentrations of 20%. Apply it to unbroken skin, fabrics and materials. It is non-toxic and safe for children. This synthetic compound is made to resemble piperine, a natural component of plants.
DEET is the best known repellent, use concentrations of 30% or higher. DEET is safe to apply to unbroken
skin, wool and cotton but it can damage other fabrics and materials, such as leather or rubber. DEET is the active component in many tick- and insect repellents.
BioUD is a newer repellent derived from wild tomato plants. A concentration of 7.75% is 2x more active than 98% DEET against ticks. It can be used on clothing but it doesn’t last as long as permethrin.
Essential oils: natural tick repellents
Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus Some research suggests that a 30% lemon eucalyptus oil can be as effective as DEET in preventing mosquitoe and tick bites.
These oils, along with lavender, juniper, oregano, and clove,compare with DEET in their effectiveness.
Cedar oil and a mixture of rosemary and peppermint oils can be used to spray the lawn’s perimeter.
How to check for ticks
- Check your clothing for ticks Ticks can be carried into the house on clothing. Remove the ticks. You can also put your clothes in the dryer on high heat for 10 minutes to kill ticks on dry clothes. Damp clothes possibly require extra time. Wash your clothes on a hot temperature because ticks will survive cold and medium temperature water.
- Shower soon after being outdoors Showering may help washing off unattached ticks and it is a good opportunity to do a tick check.
- Check your body for ticks Do a full body check after you have visited tick invested areas (which can include your backyard). Use a handheld mirror to check body parts that are difficult to examine.
- Examine pets. Ticks can come into the house by hitchhiking on your pet. Carefully examine your pet. Using tick and flea repellents on your pets is very important and it is probably not a good idea to let pets in the bedroom or sleep in your bed. Ticks carry diseases that can make your pets sick. Run your fingers through your pets fur or use a comb to feel for any small bumps and check for ticks in and around the ears, the eyelids, under the collar, under the front legs, between the back legs, between the toes and around the tail.
How to remove a tick
If you find a tick attached to your skin it is important to remove it as soon as possible in a safe way. There are several tick removal devices available but a plain set of fine-tipped tweezers work equally well.
Avoid folklore remedies such as ‘painting’ the tick with nailpolish or petroleum jelly, or using heat to make the tick detach from the skin. If you use these methods you can aggravate the tick and cause it to empty its saliva and gut contents into the body. When the tick carries bacteria it will increase your risk of developing an infection.
Also make sure that you do not compress the tick’s body with the tweezers as this may also cause the tick to empty its gut contents.
- Use fine tipped tweezers. Grasp the tick as close to the head of the tick and the skin’s surface as possible.
- Slowly and carefully pull the tick out.Don’t twist or jerk the tick as this can cause the mouth-parts to break off and remain in the skin.
- After removing the tick, clean the bite and your hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.
- Never crush a tick with your fingers. Dispose of a tick by putting it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag/container, wrapping it tightly in tape, or flushing it down the toilet.
If you develop a fever or a bulls eye rash after a tick bite or other symptoms such as extreme fatigue, muscle and joint pain or headaches consult a doctor because you might have contracted a tick borne disease. You can learn more in our article about Lyme disease.
Testing your tick
If you do get bitten and you would like to know with which pathogens the tick is infected with you can send it to Tick Report for testing. They offer comprehensive packages that test for almost all pathogens known to be spread by ticks.
Tick Report als shares data as part of Tick-Borne Disease Network passive surveillance which provides insights to who is being bitten by ticks, when they get bitten, and what pathogens those ticks are carrying.
They also offer the ‘Tick Report app‘ were you are able to submit an image of a tick that bit you. Technicians in their lab will identify the species, life stage and feeding status. Best of all: it is free!
Bugs that look like ticks
Because ticks are arachnids and not insects, they closely resemble small spiders with rounded abdomen. However some insects such as beetles may resemble ticks. Some spider species resemble ticks except that ticks lack pedipalps. Pedipalps function as taste and smell organs in spiders.
Shield bugs, stink bugs and assassin bugs can have a similar appearance to ticks. The first step of identifying a tick is counting its legs. Like other arachnids it has 8 legs. Ticks lack antenna and have two body parts while most insects have three.
Pictures of ticks
Here are some more pictures of ticks to help you with identification. Is it a bug or a tick?