Ticks: Prevent Disease While Appreciating Their Superpowers

Ticks: Prevent Disease While Appreciating Their Superpowers

Our cool and wet spring generally means boom times for ticks.

Considering that they’re blood-sucking and disease-carrying parasites, ticks can be kind of gross. They’re also kind of scary cool. Read on for simple ways to prevent tickborne illness as well as how these miniature vampires have remarkable lives and survival strategies.

Disease Prevention

In Washington, we’re lucky to have relatively few cases of tickborne disease compared to other parts of the U.S. But ticks still pose risks to our health and to our furry friends. They can transmit viral, bacterial, and protozoal diseases. Here are some actions you can take to prevent yourself or your pets from being a “blood-meal,” which is how ticks transmit diseases. Most of the below information was adapted from info from the Washington Department of Health.

  • Wear long pants and shirts. Tuck pants into socks. That’s totally in style this time of year.
  • Stay on trails – and out of long grass and brushy areas.
  • After being outside, check yourself and your friends, family, and pets for ticks.
  • Also check your clothes and gear.
  • Shower or bathe within two hours of possible tick exposure.
  • If you do find a tick attached to you, pull it out carefully with tweezers, then wash the affected area and your hands.
  • Removing a tick within 24 hours of attachment generally reduces the risk of the transmission of disease.
  • Note the date that you found the tick attached to you, just in case you become ill.
  • If you do develop a fever, rash, or flu-like illness within a month, let your healthcare provider know if you were bitten by a tick.
  • For pets (namely dogs), there are a number of protective medications, topical and systemic. Topical meds include collars and sprays. Systemic meds come in chewable forms.

If you happen to find a tick, you can send it to DOH for an ongoing project about what types of ticks live in different parts of Washington.

The Washington Department of Health has more thorough information on disease prevention.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has useful info on disease prevention as well as disease symptoms, tick identification, and more.


Some Scary Cool Stuff

There are about 700 species of ticks, which are classified as arachnids, not insects, because their adult versions have eight legs. Their lifecycles are gory and remarkable. This series of videos, morbid and educational, does a great job explaining how they develop, quest, survive, and die.

Their mouthparts are vicious when magnified. There are two main parts: the hypostome and the chelicerae. The hypostome is the piercing part, and is shaped like a sword with teeth. The chelicerae, a pair of telescoping and articulated grabbers with hook-like barbs, both cut and hold. If you want gory details of how ticks do their biting and blood-sucking, this study has them. 

Tick saliva is also powerful stuff. Dozens of chemicals, made of thousands of proteins, work to prevent pain and itching and clotting. Some of these proteins trick our immune system by neutralizing our hystamine response, which we use to fight infections and injuries.

While we understand if you don’t like ticks and want to banish them all, you may want to rethink this wish. Besides serving as food for a lot of other organisms, ticks are increasingly being used to understand the human immune system.  They’re also being used to produce chemicals that prevent blood clotting, itching, and pain.


Some More Cool Stuff

One of our favorite podcasts, Ologies, aired two excellent episodes on ticks in 2019. The first (on Aracology) focuses more on ticks themselves. The second focuses more on tick-borne illnesses, namely Lyme disease. Both are packed with great info and advice and humor.


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