What’s true and what’s false about ticks

tick-sign-forest-canada Photo by Heiko Barth/Shutterstock

Ticks, bites, and Lyme disease are all serious business. But that shouldn’t keep you from enjoying the outdoors. “That would be worst possible outcome,” says Ken Deacon, an entomologist and the coordinator of the vector-borne diseases program with the Thunder Bay District Health Unit. “Summers are short. They’re meant to be enjoyed.” Instead, arm yourself with knowledge: learn what’s true and what’s false. Then get out there and take on the rest of cottage season.

All ticks carry disease. False. Ticks aren’t born with bacteria or pathogens. They get them by feeding on a “reservoir animal” that carries them, says Deacon. In the case of Lyme, this is usually a white-footed deer mouse.

A tick, depending on its life stage, can take at least 10 minutes before it even begins the process of attaching to a host. True. Plus, some research says ticks must attach to a host for at least 24 hours before they’re able to transmit the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. (Other recent research suggests it takes half that time.) The point? Doing a full-body check and showering right after a hike in tick-prone areas is key.

Clothing is a barrier against ticks. True. “They can’t bite through clothing,” says Deacon. “They have stubby little mouthparts.” So definitely tuck pants into socks and wear closed shoes instead of sandals.

Burning or smothering a tick will help you remove it. False. Terribly false. Grasping a tick with thin-tipped tweezers is still the go-to strategy. Dedicated tick-removal tools are useful, and at the very least, owning one and knowing how to use it correctly could make you feel better prepared, says Deacon. Meanwhile, “if you’ve got really long fingernails, those will work too,” he says. (Just don’t accidentally squeeze the tick’s body.)

Some animals are natural tick enemies. True! Opossums, in particular, kill ticks very efficiently: research shows that they eat 90 per cent of the ticks that attach to them.

Ticks can jump and fly. False. They can only crawl.

Extreme cold kills ticks. True. But extreme, dry heat kills them faster. To treat clothes, put them in the dryer on a regular (hot) cycle, suggests Deacon. No dryer at the cottage? It’s not wildly practical, but you can stick clothes or items in the freezer (for a few days to a week).

Only the bite of a nymph tick can cause Lyme. False. Larvae, nymphs, and adults all bite; ticks need to feed—only once—during each of these life stages. But microscopic larvae can’t transmit the Lyme-causing bacteria; they can only gain it from biting a reservoir animal. And adults—at the size of a sesame seed—are easier to see and feel on the body, and therefore, are more likely to be detected and removed before they can transmit anything. Nymphs, which are about the size of a poppy seed, are more likely to go unnoticed—especially if they’re hiding in the armpits, groin, scalp, and behind the ears or the knees. (So check these places carefully.)

If a tick bites a person who has acquired the Lyme disease-causing bacteria (during an earlier bite from a different tick), this new tick could transmit the bacteria to another person. True? Possibly? “I would think that would be extraordinarily rare,” says Deacon.

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