Ticks and tick-borne diseases have become a significant public health issue in New York, with different tick species and diseases currently present and spreading within the state and region.
Ticks are very small arthropods that walk on even smaller ‘feet’. As parasites, they are adapted to be secretive and avoid detection by their host. Since you can't count on feeling them crawling on you, know how to protect yourself from tick exposure. Click photo to enlarge.
Dress the part. If you’ll be in tick habitat (meaning you step off the pavement), take precautions by wearing light-colored, long pants tucked into your socks and a light-colored shirt tucked into pants. These steps make it easier to see ticks crawling on you and more difficult for ticks to get to your skin.
Wear tick-killing clothing. Information on proper application of permethrin can be found on our post "Minimize tick risk while minimizing pesticide risk". Also consider buying pretreated cloths or sending your outdoor socks, pants, and shirts for professional treatments. Click photo to enlarge.
Use repellents. For more on choosing the right repellant, see our post, “Understanding over-the-counter sprays for mosquitoes and ticks” and this guide from Consumers Reports. Click photo to enlarge.
Recognize and avoid tick habitat. Tick species differ in where they prefer to hang out, but it is possible to come into contact with a tick anytime you leave the pavement. Click photo to enlarge.
Steer clear of hitchhikers. Ticks don’t survive long in most homes because of low humidity, but still — you’re safest if you put your clothes in a clothes dryer and run on high heat for 20 minutes. The tumbling action of the dryer and the high heat kill ticks and similar critters.
Check for ticks. It bears repeating - conduct a tick check at least once a day. Click photo to enlarge
Remove ticks safely. Only one method has been officially evaluated for its ability to safely remove ticks — using sharp tweezers, grab a tick as close to the skin as possible and gently pull up. Other methods could increase the risk of acquiring a tick-borne disease. To learn more, see our post “It’s tick season. Put away the matches.”
Protect your pets. Just like people, pets can encounter ticks and acquire tick-borne disease. They can also bring ticks inside with them, potentially exposing you to ticks. So, if your pet goes outdoors, it should have some protection against ticks. Click photo to enlarge.
Ticks are arachnids, meaning they are closely related to mites and spiders. They have four life stages: egg, larvae, nymph and adult. Unfed ticks are flattened, teardrop shaped. Larval ticks have six legs, while nymph and adult ticks have eight legs. Three tick species are a human health concern in New York: the blacklegged tick (deer tick), the lone star tick, and the American dog tick.
Tick size depends on the species, life stage, if the tick has fed and how long it has fed. Larval ticks hatch from an egg, develop into a nymph, then into an adult. For the blacklegged and lone star ticks, larvae are about the size of a grain of sand, nymphs about the size of a poppy seed, and adults about the size of a sesame seed. When fully fed, an adult female blacklegged and/or lone star tick can be as large as a raisin. American dog ticks are larger than blacklegged and lone star ticks.
Depending on the species, life stage and gender, ticks show different shapes and color patterns. Tick abdomens expand after feeding, making identification difficult for most people. If you need to know the species of a tick, consider having it professionally identified (see sidebar).
For growth, and later for reproduction, larval, nymph and adult ticks feed on blood. Most ticks typically search for hosts below adult knee height by questing—holding on to vegetation with their back legs while raising their front legs, enabling them to grasp on to hosts as they pass by. Lone star tick also actively walk toward its prey, even across pavement or sandy areas.
Ticks are leisurely feeders, feeding for multiple days. After inserting their mouth parts, they inject chemicals that prevent itching and inflammation, maintain blood flow, and cement the tick’s attachment on the host.
If having a tick feeding on your blood for up to a week isn’t bad enough, ticks can also transmit the pathogens that cause tick-borne diseases and cause other health problems while feeding. Different tick species transmit different disease-causing pathogens. Importantly, ticks can transmit more than one type of disease-causing pathogen at a time, and the list of pathogens continues to grow.
Last updated July 14, 2020