Little Suckers

Robert Meganck

In the hair salon, you relax into the chair, muscles pleasantly sore from the morning’s trail ride through forest and meadow. Your stylist runs her fingers through your hair, gently chiding you about split ends … then, “ACK!” She jumps back, one finger painfully hooking a tangle. “I’m so sorry,” she gasps, nose wrinkled. “You have … a tick.”

In spring and summer, the little arachnids appear on humans, dogs, cats, livestock, mice, birds. But how? They don’t jump or fly. They do, however, climb, and they can sense heat and carbon dioxide. When a potential host is at hand, a tick climbs up vegetation in case a host brushes past. Over its three-stage life cycle (up to two years, depending on species), it feeds on three hosts, one to end each stage: larval, nymph and adult. After the last, the tick falls off its host, lays a couple thousand eggs, and dies.

Of the 850 or so tick species found worldwide, Virginia has 15, only three of which are seen regularly: the American dog tick, brown with wavy lines; the blacklegged tick; and the lone star tick, named for the white dot on its back. “All are pretty much everywhere in the state,” says David Gaines, the state public health entomologist for the Virginia Department of Health, adding that the lone star is by far the most common. Overall numbers are declining, he says, thanks to topical tick pesticides used on pets.

However, as suburban areas grow increasingly hospitable to hosts such as deer and mice, tick-borne illness is on the rise, including some potentially serious, even life-threatening diseases. For Lyme disease, says Gaines, “the numbers almost tripled in 2007”—from 357 cases in 2006 to 959 in 2007—“and it’s been above the 900 level since that time.” Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF) has also increased, as have some other, rarer tick-associated illnesses. All cause flulike symptoms and vary in rash pattern, long-term effects and potential mortality. Treatment is antibiotics, the sooner the better.

Gaines estimates that only 5 to 20 percent of ticks are infected, but it’s good to know which carries what. The American dog tick carries RMSF, which in the eastern U.S has doubled in the last few years while its historically 3 to 5 percent fatality rate has nearly disappeared. Gaines and other tick experts speculate that the much more prevalent lone star tick may carry a related but less pathogenic bacteria, which would explain the surprising tilt in the trend. Lone star ticks carry a variety of other bacteria, but not Lyme, which is limited to the blacklegged tick’s arsenal. Known as the deer tick, this tick does not, as many people assume, get Lyme from deer—which don’t even carry it, says Gaines: “Deer blood destroys the Lyme disease agent.” Rather, the white-footed mouse—the predominant rodent in suburban areas near forests—is “the primary reservoir of Lyme disease.” The larval tick catches and carries it through life.

I found myself watching for any number of ailments after my 9-year-old picked up a tick one unseasonably warm March day. At first we thought the red bump with the dark spot in its center was just some weird skin issue. Then, three days later, a little black-beanlike thing hung off the spot—clearly a tick. Thoroughly creeped out, I checked the Internet for how to remove it without leaving mouthparts. Most recommendations touted tweezers, which I couldn’t find, and counseled against using alcohol, matches or other irritants that could cause the tick to regurgitate into the wound (heebie-jeebies!). Finally, one site suggested taking a thread and noosing it around the point of contact, then pulling slowly and steadily until the critter released the skin. As I did, my son and I chorused in unison, “Eeuuuwwww!”

I stashed the hitchhiker in a Ziploc in the fridge, pending the appearance of any odd symptoms. Weeks later, all is well.

Which reminds me—I guess I can get rid of the tick now.

Search “ticks” at the Virginia Department of Health’s website, and the first link you find takes you to a wonderfully detailed brochure.

christine ennulat
Virginia Living’s Associate Editor
June 11, 2022

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