It’s extremely difficult to pinpoint the worst insect or arachnid in the world. However, ticks are definitely at the top of anyone’s list. These small, repulsive, unseen parasites lurk in our backyards, fields and wooded areas.
Simply put, they are extremely happy to see you or your pet outside. Just like any parasite, they need blood from animals or humans to survive.
Different species of ticks are carriers of life-altering and potentially fatal infectious diseases. For example, the bite of a Blacklegged Tick (or deer tick, Ixodes Scapularis) can transmit Lyme Disease, Anaplasmosis, Babesiosis, Borrelia Mayonii and Powassan Encephalitis. This species is widely distributed throughout the North-Central, North-Eastern, Mid-Atlantic and Southern United States. Without a doubt, ticks pose serious health risks to animals and humans.
Just the thought of a blood-sucking hitchhiker on you or your beloved pet is extremely repulsive. Beyond that, there’s the anxiety and psychological fear of contracting an infectious disease.
Yes, they’re creepy, disgusting and spread diseases. Well, that is exactly why you need to be aware of them. A single bite can ultimately lead to disastrous consequences.
Implement a plan to protect yourself, loved ones and your pet.
What Is A Tick?
Many of us immediately think of ticks as insects. To the contrary, they are arachnids like mites, scorpions and spiders. Like all arachnids, ticks have four pairs of legs and no antennae. Insects however have three pairs of legs and one pair of antennae.
Fossil records suggest that these parasitic arachnids have been around for at least 90 million years. These blood suckers are found throughout the world especially in warm humid climates.
Of the 700 species of hard ticks and 200 species of soft ticks, only a select few bite and transmit diseases to animals and humans.
Of all arachnids, ticks pose the greatest health risk, because they are the most efficient carriers and transmitters of numerous diseases such as Ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Tularemia. For example, Ehrlichiosis, is a tick-borne disease whose symptoms include the following:
- Fever, chills.
- Muscle Pain.
- Gastrointestinal symptoms (anorexia, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting).
- Altered mental status.
- Rash (more commonly reported among children).
If left untreated, it may result in serious or life-threatening complications.
By now I’m sure your skin is crawling. But we’re not done. Let’s take a look at the two types of bloodsuckers you may encounter.
What Are The Two Main Families Of Ticks?
In general, ticks can be divided into two main families: hard ticks (Ixodidae) and “soft” ticks. (Argasidae).
Hard tick (Ixodidae) adult females and males have different coloration and females are larger than males. They have a plate or “hard shell” on their back just behind the mouthparts called a scutum. Hence the description “hard tick”. Also, they have visible mouthparts when observed from above. Unfed, a hard tick is shaped like a flat seed.
Hard ticks have voracious appetites and thrive in habitats rich with vertebrae hosts such as mammals, lizards and ground-dwelling birds. They are commonly found in brushy, wooded or weedy areas, especially moist woodlands and vegetated areas at the edge of forests, along hiking trails and in overgrown weedy or grassy fields.
Stay alert and exercise caution because hard ticks typically seek and feed on a host during the daytime. So if you are hiking through any of the above-mentioned habitats, stop and perform a tick check.
A few examples of hard ticks that transmit diseases are as follows:
Soft tick (Argasidae) adult females and males are relatively the same size. They lack a scutum (hard shell) and are shaped like a large raisin. When viewed from above, you would think they do not have mouthparts. However, their mouthparts are located on the underside of the body so that the front portion of the tick’s body hides the mouthparts.
Soft ticks are commonly found in animal burrows, dens, caves or broken-down simple human dwellings such as huts, cabins or sheds. They prefer to feed on birds or bats and are seldom encountered unless these animals are nesting or roosting in an occupied building. These parasites thrive in hot and dry conditions.
Unlike hard ticks, soft ticks search and feed on hosts during the evening. This evening feeder occasionally bites humans sleeping in old cabins. As mentioned above, always check yourself and companions for ticks.
Two examples of soft tick that transmits diseases are:
Despite their anatomical differences and feeding habits, both hard and soft are blood feeders and can transmit life-threatening diseases. However, hard ticks are more likely to parasitize people and animals ultimately transmitting far more diseases than their raisin-shaped family members.
What Is A Tick's Lifecycle?
Courtesy image provided by the Center For Disease Control
In general, ticks don’t have a lengthy lifespan. However, it’s long enough to wreak havoc on their host. The CDC states that the average lifecycle spans the course of approximately 3 years. During those years, ticks go through four phases: egg, larva, nymph and adult. To reach the next stage, they must feast on an unsuspecting animal's blood. Otherwise, a tick will meet its demise before making it to the next phase. Understanding a tick’s lifecycle will help you know what to expect and prevent tick bites.
Phase 1: Eggs - Like all living organisms, ticks begin their lifecycle as an egg. Ticks eggs are often laid in the spring after female ticks complete their two to three year life span. Eggs are often brown and red in color and appear to be translucent. An adult female tick can lay thousands of eggs. While ticks need to detach from their host before laying eggs (and therefore cannot lay eggs directly in a host), eggs can be found under leaf litter, leaf brush and other warm, soft places outside.
Although not parasitic at this stage, if they get stuck to body parts, clothes or fur, they can be transferred back into or around the home where the environment is still suitable to hatching, leading to an infestation.
Phase 2: Larva - This stage is unique because unlike a full grown adult, a larva has six legs instead of eight. They are extremely tiny and difficult to detect. This is when baby ticks take their first steps looking for a suitable host to feed upon. Often these little monsters will hunt down mice and other small animals to acquire their first taste of blood. After it feeds, it will lie dormant through the winter and molt into its next phase.
Phase 3: Nymph - When a tick reaches this stage, the average size is approximately 2 mm, around the size of a poppy seed! At this stage, a nymph also grows another pair of legs reaching its true arachnid form. They are more active in late spring through the summer months. Once latched onto a new host and begin feeding, it will molt again to become an adult.
Just because a nymph is the size of poppy seed, it still packs a serious punch. The CDC states that nymphs are actually the most likely to transmit tick borne infections than ticks in other stages. Less than 2 mm in size, nymphs can bite people, burrow into your pets skin, remain undetected while feeding and transmit a debilitating disease.
Phase 4: Adult - This is the final stage of a tick’s lifecycle. These mature ticks will patiently wait for their next victim on tall grass or shrubs. They will attach themselves once an unsuspecting animal or person brushes up against the grass where they are patiently lurking. They will feed, mate and the engorged females will lay thousands of translucent eggs to repeat the cycle all over.
At this stage, infected adult ticks are more than capable of transmitting diseases to unsuspecting hosts.
How Does A Tick Latch Onto A Host?
Ticks have clever and ingenious ways of finding and attaching themselves to a host. They are able to detect animal and human breath, body odors or by sensing body heat, moisture and even vibrations. According to the CDC, some species of ticks can even recognize a shadow.
Just to calm your fears, ticks do not jump or fly. Ticks belong to the arachnida class - the same class as scorpions and spiders who thankfully cannot fly. There are absolutely no species of ticks that have wings. If they did, we wouldn’t leave the house. So if they can’t jump or fly, how do these bloodsuckers get around? These eight-legged parasites have other tricks up their sleeves.
As you already know, ticks are broken down into two main families: hard ticks and soft ticks. Although both rely on blood to survive, each one has a specific method of finding and attaching themselves to a host.
Hard ticks are extremely patient ambush predators. They pick a place to wait by identifying well-used paths. Silently waiting for a host, they rest on the tips of grasses and shrubs in a position known as “questing”.
So what does questing mean? This is when a hard tick holds onto the highest point of elevation on grass or leaves with their third and fourth pair of legs. Their first pair of legs are outstretched waiting to hitch a ride onto a host. When you or your pet brush up against the spot where a hard tick is patiently waiting, its outstretched legs latch on. Once on board, it begins to search for a suitable place to attach and gorge on your blood.
On the other hand, soft shell ticks developed a hunter strategy when finding prey. They typically live in the nest of their host, crawl around and scurry towards an animal or human at night and enjoy a quick feeding session. This evening feeder occasionally bites humans sleeping in old cabins. I know, disgusting and terrifying.
Where Does A Tick Attach Itself To Feed?
Once an unwanted parasitic hitchhiker has latched onto a host, the place where it will attach itself can vary. Some ticks will attach quickly and others will start a quest for a suitable place to feed.
A tick doesn’t normally bite immediately and sometimes wander around your body for several hours. Although it can attach itself anywhere, it prefers hard-to-see areas that are moist and warm.
The most common area that ticks attach themselves to the human body are as follows:
- In and around the hairline / scalp.
- In and around the ears.
- Inside the belly button.
- Around the waist.
- Between the legs / groin area.
- Under the arms.
- Back of the knees.
- In folds of skin.
Let’s not forget about our faithful companions who depend on us for their safety. If your pet joins you on your outdoor adventure, it’s also at risk of falling victim to a hitchhiking bloodsucker. The most common areas tick attach themselves to pets are as follows:
- The base of the tail.
- Neck and collar area.
- Between the toes.
- Under the front legs.
- In and around the ears.
- Around the eyelids.
As you already know, ticks are the carriers of numerous diseases and can make you or your pet extremely sick. It’s extremely important that you check not only these common areas where ticks enjoy a meal, but everywhere after being out in nature. Although ticks do prefer the above-mentioned areas, they can attach themselves anywhere they please.
In the event you happen to locate a parasitic arachnid on yourself or your faithful companion, remove it as safely and quickly as possible.
What Happens When A Tick Bites You?
Once a tick has located a perfect place to call you or your pet dinner, it’s time to feed. This nauseating bloodsucker unleashes its horrific utensils, burrows its unsightly head deep into your skin and starts sucking up your blood.
A tick’s mouth is perfectly designed to effectively pierce your skin, drink your blood and stay in place for days on end. Basically, it’s a mouth full of spears. If the animal kingdom ever had a Swiss Army knife, the capitulum (false head) of a tick would be its first choice.
The center piece is known as the hypostome, a sword or spear-like feeding tube well-equipped with barbs on both sides to ensure it’s securely anchored into your flesh when feeding. The hypostome is sheathed inside by a pair of jaws known as chelicerae which are well-equipped with small teeth and hooks at the end. Next to the chelicerae are small shaped palps which serve sensory purposes.
Now that you understand the complex weaponry of a ticks mouth, lets explain what happens when it bites.
When you are bitten, the tick inserts both the hypostome (barbed sword) and chelicerae (jaws equipped with teeth and hooks) into your skin. The chelicerae perform the initial cutting and also slice the host's blood vessels causing blood pools at the tip of the hypostome. The barbed hypostome is the feeding tube that sucks up your blood.
As if this nasty array of arachnid weaponry isn’t enough, the tick then spits a glue-like substance from its salivary glands through the hypostome that cements its disgusting mouthparts securely onto your flesh.
How Does Tick Saliva Neutralize Your Immune System?
Now that your skin has been ripped open by nature’s Swiss Army knife, the tick begins feeding. When it starts to feed, it doesn’t suck blood out of your blood vessels.
Instead it spits out a disgusting cocktail of enzymes that destroy a ring of your bodily tissue. It creates a “feeding cavity”, think of it as a “lake of blood”. Its saliva contains anticoagulants that prevent your blood from clotting. Over the course of days, your body fights to heal the wound by sending cells to make collagen. However, a tick’s saliva contains enzymes to counteract this.
The cocktail also contains a skin-numbing painkiller called Kininases. This anesthetic property degrades your pain-inducing signals. That’s why you will not feel a tick bite. If it’s in a sheltered area, it will go unnoticed until it’s fully fed and eventually drop off.
To make matters worse, its saliva also neutralizes our complex immune system. The molecules bind to and neutralize histamine (best known for causing itching, redness and opening up blood vessels to allow immune cells to race to the injured site). A tick’s saliva blocks this, so unlike a mosquito's bite, it doesn’t itch and your immune cells can’t get to the injured site.
Lastly, a tick’s saliva neutralizes or evades your white blood cells that help your body fight infection and other diseases. Once your immune system is completely breached, your body doesn’t have a fighting chance to react to this disgusting cocktail of enzymes.
Why Is Tick Saliva Extremely Dangerous?
To add insult to injury, a tick’s spit is a “loaded gun”. While suppressing blood clotting and your immune system, there is one last wicked secret to bring to your attention. An infected tick’s spit can transmit bacteria, parasites and viruses that cause serious and life-threatening diseases.
Ticks do not hatch from their egg sacs with harmful bacteria, parasites or viruses that cause life-long health complications. Nor do these blood feeders acquire diseases through their breeding process. In fact, they don’t carry diseases at all. Confused? We’ll explain the process.
So how do they contract diseases? Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia Burgdorferi. Wild mammals, especially small rodents and deer, can carry the bacteria in nature. During its lifecycle, a tick acquires the bacteria from feasting on infected wildlife. Now the tick is infected and can spread the bacteria to humans and animals (such as pets) when it feeds.
The saliva doesn’t only benefit the tick, but the bacteria, parasites and viruses that live inside them too. When the nasty cocktail is secreted, disease-causing pathogens are also released into the wound.
Exposure to disease-causing pathogens is a serious threat! In addition to being invaded by microscopic organisms, a tick’s saliva can also cause “tick paralysis”. It is caused by the salivary neurotoxin of several species of ticks such as the American Dog Tick and Rocky Mountain Wood Tick.
This neurologic syndrome is characterized by acute ataxia that progresses and ultimately leads to paralysis. If not recognized early and treated promptly, tick paralysis can lead to respiratory failure and death.
A Final Thought.
First of all, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to read this article. If I left you disgusted, nauseated or uneasy, I do apologize. However, for anyone venturing outdoors, ticks are a serious threat to our well-being. After all, we are in their environment.
This doesn’t mean we lock our doors, shut the windows, and stand guard inside with a can of bug spray. It is absolutely important to get outside and camp, hike and hunt. The possibility of a tick bite should not prevent you from enjoying the outdoors.
Being diligent about them gives you an extra edge to protect yourself, your loved ones and your pets.
Please stay well and be safe.