I was lying under the car in that strangely peaceful place where dirty oil is flowing into the pan and I’m about to unscrew the old oil filter – when I saw a tick crawling on my sleeve. There was another one ambling across the old blue camp pad I use to soften the gravel in the driveway. Then a couple of days later I found two on the cuffs of my jeans after an afternoon’s yard work.
They’re out. It’s tick season.
Few creatures elicit such revulsion. And for good reason. Ticks are the number one transmitters of zoonotic diseases in the U.S., that is animal diseases that can be transferred to humans. They are second only to mosquitos worldwide. Ticks infect people (and deer and cattle and dogs, and so on) by burying their heads in our skin and sucking our blood.
Deer ticks can carry the spirochete bacterium, which causes Lyme disease, a debilitating and sometimes fatal attack on a victim’s joints, heart and nervous system. It used to be confused with rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, it wasn’t identified until 1975, when a group of mothers in Lyme, Connecticut, realized how unusual it was that they all had children with “rheumatoid arthritis” – and this led to the discovery of the bacterium and its vector, the tick bite.
The other scary diseases carried by ticks are Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Colorado tick fever, which is a virus, and is transmitted by wood ticks.
All of the medical websites on ticks talk about the proper removal of an imbedded tick. They say to use tweezers and to grasp the tick firmly as close to the head as possible and pull, with a steady – not a twisting – motion, lest you leave the head and mandibles in the skin. They say definitely do not grab the tick’s midsection or use the old folk wisdom of a hot match head to get the critter to back out of its own accord. These might cause the tick to regurgitate its stomach contents into the host, increasing the likelihood of disease.
Wish I’d known this back in the 1960s. I was staying at a primitive cabin in southern California and was getting dressed one morning when I discovered a tick on my side about belt high. It was partially engorged with my blood – must have been attached for at least a day – a tiny, eight-legged cabernet grape.
I tried just grabbing and pulling, but it didn’t come out. The tick’s jaw parts are barbed. I tried again, stretching my skin by inches, but it didn’t budge. I remembered the match trick and wasted a couple of kitchen matches; the thing wiggled its legs in the air in response to the heat. But really, it couldn’t have backed out if it had wanted to; it was too full of blood.
Finally, I just grabbed and pulled as hard as I could between finger and thumb, and it came out. Or rather, it came apart. The pinhead black head was still in me. I was lucky. It didn’t get infected. And I didn’t get sick.
The websites also say to avoid squeezing or crushing the tick. And to wash your hands thoroughly after handling one. Where was this wisdom my whole life? Most of the 900 species of ticks that live in North America are hard-bodied ticks. They are not easy to dispatch. You can’t just pinch them or drown them in the sink. They’re prehistorically tough. I have always killed ticks by ripping their upper parts from their lower parts, thus guaranteeing that they will not see another day, another patch of skin. I learned this from my sister, the vet, who delighted (I’m quite sure she delighted) in searching her dogs for ticks and ripping them asunder with her fingernails.
A dear, and now dearly departed, friend of ours once thought he was suffering from Rocky Mountain spotted fever. At least that’s what he told us. That was his excuse for symptoms that included chills, fever, muscle pain, headache. And mental confusion. Turned out he was seriously bipolar and was suffering a wild, manic phase. It culminated when he banged on our door at 3 o’clock one morning and insisted I help him break a window in a car nearby where he was pretty sure there was a sleeping pill that would save his life. I took him to the psych ward at Montrose Hospital, and a few days later he was better.
What good are ticks anyway? The numbing chemicals they inject into their victims to render the bite painless have been studied by medical science for years. As have the anti-coagulants in their saliva that improve blood flow.
Chickens and guinea fowl eat them.
The ecologists say, “Ticks are an important link in the food chain as they take nourishment from large host animals high in the food chain and transfer that energy down the chain to lesser organisms.”
The best answer I’ve heard requires you to empathize with bacteria. It says that ticks are a good thing – from the pathogen’s perspective.
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