Creature Feature

Time to Check for Ticks 

By Wayne Bierbaum 

At least once a week, I take a walk through the woods. When it’s warm, I try to stay on open trails because I really hate ticks.  Once in Delaware, I had to walk on a path with tall uncut grass. I tucked my pants into my socks and sprayed my lower legs and shoes with repellent but after about 200 feet of walking, I started to see ticks walking up the upper parts of my pants. I knocked off all that I could find and I did not get bit that day. However, the next day I was driving to work and a tick dropped from the car ceiling and began running up my left arm. I was definitely a distracted driver and had to pull over to catch it. I then found two more on the car seat and yet another on my neck. Creepy. 

Ticks are not insects but are eight-legged arachnids, like a spider. There are four types of ticks in Maryland. and although all four can spread diseases, it’s the deer tick (aka the blacklegged tick) and the Lone Star tick that are the most concerning.  

The deer tick (Ixodes scapularis) is a tiny tick that may be as small as the period in this sentence. They are reddish-brown with very dark legs. The host species are any mammal but are most commonly found on white-footed mice and, of course, deer. After they hatch from an egg, they go through a series of growth stages that requires finding a host to feed on. When they reach adult size, they breed and the female will gorge itself, drop off and lay several hundred eggs. To find an animal to feed on, they walk to the end of a leaf or blade of grass and extend their two front legs out as wide as possible and wait for an animal to brush by. They are protected from the elements when attached to a host animal. Without a host, very cold winters do reduce their numbers.  

Ticks can transmit bloodborne diseases. A tick feeds on an infected animal and the germ remains viable in the tick. An infected female can pass the pathogens to her eggs so that even the tiny nymphs can carry diseases. As a feeding tick gets filled with blood, it regurgitates into the wound and the germ is passed. It usually takes two or more days for this to happen. So, if you find a tick that has been on your body for less than 24 hours, your chance of a tick-borne disease is low. 

Twenty years ago, the Lone Star tick was uncommon around here. That is no longer the case. These ticks are redder in color than the deer tick and have a light yellow spot about a third of the way back from their head. Their legs are the same color as their body.  

Although this arachnid carries diseases, it also injects a sugar, alpha-gal (galactose-α-1,3-galactose), into the bite. Because it is injected with irritants, people can develop profound allergies to the sugar which is found in mammalian cell walls. A person can therefore become severely allergic to eating red meat. Mild alpha-gal allergies can cause gastrointestinal distress or a rash. But severe reactions can lead to anaphylactic shock. Some people who develop the allergy report that it goes away with time.  

If you have a tick buried in you, try to grab it by its head and lift straight up with a slight twist to the side. To avoid getting infected material into you, try not to squeeze the bug by the abdomen. To avoid getting them on you to begin with, tuck long pants into socks and spray repellent on shoes and lower pants legs. Avoid brushing against plants. And don’t lay down in grass that has been flattened by deer (I know someone that did.) If a tick has been attached for more than 24 hours, taking a single dose of an antibiotic can significantly reduce the risk of Lyme’s disease.