How To Prevent Deer Ticks

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deer ticks
The western black-legged tick, one of two types of deer ticks in the U.S., is responsible for the spread of Lyme disease in California and other parts of the western U.S.

The weather was warm when two deer hunters went bowhunting for early-season deer. At day’s end, they hadn’t seen any whitetails, but when they arrived back at the truck, they did notice another creature. A tick was crawling up one of the hunter's neck.

“There’s nothing good about deer ticks,” the other hunter said as he showed him the little blood-sucking parasite.

 “Oh, yes, there is one good thing about them,” he said.

“And what would that be?” the deer hunter asked.

“They don’t get as big as grizzly bears,” he replied.

We are indeed fortunate that deer ticks are small because these arachnids are like little vampires. They bite unlucky humans who cross paths with them and then make a meal of their blood. A tick the size of Gentle Ben would certainly be frightening to encounter.

western black-legged tick
A number of diseases can be transmitted by deer ticks if left untreated.

Fortunately, adult ticks aren’t big, usually about the size of a lemon seed. And in most cases, a deer tick bite is nothing more than an inconvenience. The victim may not even realize a deer tick has drilled his epidermis until the bug has finished feeding, fallen off and left behind a swollen, itchy bite mark. After a few days, the bite usually disappears, and the victim is little worse for the wear.

This is not always the case, however. A number of infectious diseases are transmitted by deer ticks. And left untreated, some illnesses such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia and Lyme disease can be dangerous or even deadly.

The fact that deer ticks are small acts against us in this case. If a deer tick remains undetected and attached to its victim several hours, the possibility of disease transmission greatly increases.

Deer Tick Facts

Several types of ticks are vectors of disease-causing bacteria, viruses and protozoans, including the American dog tick, brown dog tick, Lone Star tick and Rocky Mountain wood tick. It is the black-legged tick, however, (better known as the deer tick) that has garnered most of the bad press in recent years. That’s because black-legged, or deer, ticks are more likely than other tick species to carry the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, which causes Lyme disease, the most common bug-borne illness in the United States. (Black-legged ticks also are vectors of the diseases babesiosus and anaplasmosis.)

Lyme disease was first recognized in the U.S. in 1975 after an unusual outbreak of arthritis near Lyme, Connecticut. Since then, reports of Lyme disease have increased dramatically, and the disease has become an important public health problem in some areas.

State health departments reported 28,921 confirmed cases and 6,277 probable cases of Lyme disease to the Centers for Disease Control in 2008. This represented a five percent increase in confirmed cases compared to 2007.

The black-legged tick (Ixodes scapularis) spreads Lyme disease in the northeastern and north-central United States, and the western black-legged tick (Ixodes pacificus) spreads the disease on the Pacific Coast. Most cases of Lyme disease in the U.S. occur in these areas:

  • Northeast, from Maryland to Maine
  • North-central states, mostly in Wisconsin and Minnesota
  • West Coast, particularly northern California
life stages of ticks
This chart shows the life stages of three types of common U.S. ticks, including the black-legged, or deer, tick. Black-legged tick nymphs are more likely to spread the Lyme disease bacterium than adults or larvae.

Black-legged ticks also occur throughout the southeastern U.S. and west to south-central Texas, Oklahoma, southern Missouri and eastern Kansas. However, few black-legged ticks in the Southeast have been found infected with Lyme disease bacterium. Therefore, the risk for Lyme disease from this tick in the southeastern part of the country is considered relatively low.

In general, ticks need to be attached for 36 to 48 hours before they can transmit the Lyme disease bacterium. Most humans are infected through bites of immature ticks called nymphs. Nymphs are smaller than a pinhead (less than 2 mm or .08 in.).

Adult ticks also can spread Lyme disease, but they are much larger (about the size of an apple seed) and more likely to be discovered and removed before they have time to transmit the bacteria.

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