Tick Tips!

Question: There are several species of ticks in Virginia. Do I need to be concerned about all of them? How do I identify different types of ticks? What do I do if I get a tick bite and how do I protect myself and prevent tick bites?

Now is a good time to learn about or refresh your knowledge of ticks! Ticks are most active from March to September, with peak activity in April thru June. However, ticks are around throughout the year. General information is provided below, followed by a more in-depth look at where ticks are found, their behavior and life cycle.

Ticks in Virginia
Ticks are very common in Virginia. There are about 17 different species of ticks found here, according to the Virginia Public Health Department’s state entomologist Dr. David Gaines. Fortunately, only 3-5 species are problematic because they bite humans and may transmit serious bacterial or protozoan diseases.

Steps to Take if a Tick Bites You
When you come in from the garden/yard/hike and find a tick attached in a warm, dark, thin-skinned place on the body – or even worse, find it hours later – your initial reaction may be to panic! Remain calm and follow these steps below:

  1. Immediately and carefully remove the tick by grasping it with a pair of fine-pointed tweezers as close to the skin as possible.
  2. Then pull the tick upward until it releases from the skin.
  3. Disinfect the bite site and wash your hands.
  4. Do not squeeze the tick with your fingers to kill it.
  5. Save the tick by placing it in alcohol, which will kill it, so that if you become sick, the tick can be used to help with diagnosis of your illness.

Remember that not all ticks carry disease. Frequent checking for ticks is important when outdoors and immediately after coming indoors as time attached can change your chances of contracting a tick-borne illness. Both nymph and adult stages of ticks can transmit disease and adult ticks are active throughout the year. Thus, vigilance for tick checks is necessary year-round. The Virginia Tick Survey can help with identification.

Jim Gathany, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History Exhibit, 2005.

Ticks Diseases in Virginia
Most tick-borne diseases in Virginia are associated with three species: the American dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis), lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum), and the black-legged tick (Ixodes scapularis, also called the deer tick). These three species serve as vectors for 10 or more human diseases that can range from mild to potentially life-threatening. The most common is Lyme disease, followed by ehrlichiosis.

Lyme disease is transmitted by the black-legged tick and is caused by bacterium in the genus Borrelia. Symptoms include:
a circular or oval rash at least two inches in diameter at attachment site

  • fever
  • headaches
  • joint or muscle aches
  • swollen glands
  • fatigue

If untreated it may affect the nervous system or cause long-lasting arthritis in large joints. Based on Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data, the Virginia Department of Public Health reports that the incidence of Lyme disease in Virginia has tripled since the 1990s. Most cases of Lyme disease occur in backyards, so gardeners need to be careful to protect themselves and prevent tick bites.

Ehrlichiosis is transmitted by the lone star tick and is also caused by a bacterium in the genus Ehrlichia. Symptoms of ehrlichiosis include:

  • fever
  • chills
  • severe headache
  • muscle aches
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • loss of appetite
  • confusion
  • rash (most common in children)

If left untreated, ehrlichiosis can be life-threatening.

Prevention of Tick-Borne Disease
Tick-transmitted diseases can be treated with antibiotics if they are treated soon after disease symptoms appear. Avoiding tick bites is the best way to prevent a tick-borne illness. Here are some actions to take to decrease the likelihood of a tick bite.

  1. Avoid Contact with Ticks by avoiding wooded, brushy areas with tall grass and leaf litter. Try to walk in the center of trails and keep lawns mowed.
  2. Create a Zone of Defense around your Garden or Lawn with at least a three-foot barrier of wood chips, rocks, or mowed lawn to separate woody, brushy areas from the lawn or garden. Keep woodpiles away from the home, remove leaf litter, and trim shrubs and trees away from walkways or patios. Discourage wildlife activity in lawn and garden areas with fencing and animal repellants.
  3. Dress for Safety when gardening by wearing light-colored clothes to make it easier to spot ticks. Be sure to tuck pants into socks, and a long-sleeved shirt into pants and gloves. To repel ticks, treat clothing with DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide), picaridin (icaridin), IR3535 (ethyl 3-[acetyl(butyl)amino]propanoate), Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD), or 2-undecanone containing bug spray. Do not use products containing OLE or PMD on children under three years old. Always read the label and apply the repellant correctly. Remember: The Label is the Law.
  4. Check for Ticks Often because tick repellants are not 100% effective. Check for ticks on yourself, pets, and any equipment that you carry with you outdoors. Because ticks are most frequently on vegetation that is one to three feet tall, ticks generally contact your legs first.
  5. Take a Shower Then Wash and Dry Outdoor Clothing within two hours of coming indoors to reduce the risk of tick bites. Showering helps to wash off unattached ticks and is a good time to do a careful, full-body tick-check. Wash clothes in hot water; cold and warm water will NOT kill ticks. Dry clothes on high heat for 10 minutes to kill all attached ticks.

Where do Ticks Live?
The type of habitat where ticks are found differs depending on their host. Some ticks live in bird’s nests, some in small mammal burrows (for example, mice or chipmunk), others in brush piles, leaf litter on the soil surface, or in wood piles. The ticks that are of most concern to human health live in woody or in grassy areas, frequently along unmaintained or shrubby borders between forested areas and lawns. One of the most important characteristics of a good tick habitat is that it is moist. Ticks survive best in places with relatively high humidity because of their small size and relatively large surface area. They are very susceptible to desiccation, or drying out, so fewer ticks are found in sunny, open areas.

Tick Life Cycle
Ticks are classified as arachnids (like spiders and scorpions), which are eight-legged when they are adults. Ticks are external parasites that live by feeding on the blood of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. There are about 90 species of ticks in the US and over 900 species world-wide. Unlike spiders and scorpions that have three developmental stages in their life cycles, the tick has four stages:

  1. egg
  2. larva
  3. nymph
  4. adult

In the spring, six-legged larvae (sometimes called seed-ticks) hatch from eggs that were laid the previous fall. The pin-head-sized larvae must have a blood meal to become a nymph. For most species of ticks, the larvae, nymphs, and adults feed on different hosts. If a larval tick bites an infected host, it typically becomes infected with disease-causing microorganisms. Once the larva is fully engorged with blood, it drops from the host to the ground, where it molts to become an eight-legged nymph. The nymph will also attach to a host, feeds until engorged, releases, and molts into an eight-legged adult tick. Finally, the adult tick feeds on a host, repeating the process of attaching, feeding, and releasing. If an adult female has mated and becomes fully engorged, she will drop to the ground to lay one batch of several thousand eggs in leaf litter. After laying its eggs, the adult tick dies while the eggs survive the winter in the soil leaf-litter to begin the life cycle again.

Tick Behavior
Ticks exhibit an interesting behavior referred to as questing, which is how ticks contact their hosts. Questing is a passive behavior; ticks do not jump, fly, or drop from vegetation onto their hosts. If you look carefully at tick habit in the spring when most abundant, you may see them perched on their back set of legs with their front legs extended at the tip of plant stems about one to three feet above the ground. When a host brushes the vegetation, the tick will latch-on in response to cues such as carbon dioxide, body heat, vibrations, and even in some cases shadows.

Ticks may attach to their host immediately or wander around on the host until it finds a suitable location to attach. They prefer warm, moist areas of the host body; for example, on humans they frequently attach:

  • around the waist
  • in or around the ears
  • under the arms
  • in or around hair
  • inside the belly button
  • around the waist
  • between the legs
  • on the back of the knee

The tick must be attached and feeding for 10-36 hours for disease-causing microorganisms to exit the tick’s stomach and work their way to the mouth parts where the pathogens are transferred to the host.

One final tip! It is important to avoid pinching the tick’s abdomen while removing to prevent saliva or stomach contents from entering the bite wound. Do not crush the tick with your fingers or fingernails. The disease-causing microbe may enter any breaks in your skin.

References:

“Creating a Tick Resistant Garden,” Penn State Extension, Master Gardener Program, Pike County.

“Ehrlichiosis: Signs and Symptoms,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Reviewed 17 Jan. 2019.

“Expert Dispels Myth About Lyme Disease and Offers Tips for Prevention,” Virginia Tech Daily,

“How Ticks Spread Disease,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Reviewed 21 Sept. 2020.

“Lyme Disease and Other Tickborne Illnesses are Increasing,” Paige Lucas, Virginia Department of Health, District Epidemiologist, Cumberland Plateau Health District, 22 Aug. 2019.

“Preventing Tick Bites on People,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Reviewed 30 Sept. 2019.

“Ticks and Tick-Borne Diseases in Virginia,” Virginia Department of Health.

“Tick Biology and Ecology,” The University of Maine, Cooperative Extension, Tick Lab.