Even just reading about ticks makes me immediately spot check my limbs and start feeling itchy. (Sorry in advance for what this story will do to you.) But at the same time, I’m so paranoid about ticks that I can’t help but click on anything that might improve my chances of avoiding those little suckers, even slightly.
We know the basics (right?): Check your body after spending time outdoors (in the woods, your backyard, the park, etc), use the proper removal technique if you find one and cover as much of your body as possible when you’re out in nature. But wouldn’t it be even more helpful if we could get inside a tick’s brain and find out exactly what it’s looking for in a human? What causes it to swipe right on one mammal and not another? Because ticks actively hunt for their next target, knowing how they select their prey can help helpful for avoiding bites.
How ticks pick their targets
Previously, I assumed that ticks just randomly hop on the first warm body they come in contact with—whether that’s a human, dog, deer or other animal—but it’s more complicated than that. According to an article in Popular Science:
It’s true that you often get exposed to ticks by brushing up against them. But it’s not like they’re just hanging out on a leaf enjoying a sunny day when you happen to walk by. They’re lying in wait.
OK, then. So basically, your innocent walk through the park is an invitation for ticks to feed.
But how do they know where to jump? Turns out, they have tiny sensory devices on the ends of their front legs that help them detect scents. And sadly, no amount of deodorant or bug spray will save you, because the tick can tell where you are based on your breath—specifically, the carbon dioxide you release as you exhale. Ticks also love the smell of ammonia, so peeing in the woods gives them a major clue as to your whereabouts.
How ticks get away with it
Unfortunately for us, it’s pretty hard to tell right away if a tick has landed on you and started to feast on your blood. According to the TickEncounter Resource Center at the University of Rhode Island, we don’t notice the bite because ticks secrete special painkillers called kininases through their saliva. This also allows them to stay attached for you for several days without you knowing a thing.
In addition, the Popular Science article notes that not all ticks want to feed exactly where they land on you: some types like to explore different areas of your body before selecting the perfect dinner spot. According to the Centers for Disease Control, their favorite feeding locations include:
- Under the arms
- In and around the ears
- Inside belly button
- Back of the knees
- In and around the hair
- Between the legs
- Around the waist
So be sure to check those places extra carefully when doing your post-outdoor-outing tick check.
Location, location, location
If you think you can move to another part of the United States and be safe from ticks, think again. According to the CDC, the only state where ticks are not a native species is Alaska. This means that they can be found in every other state—including yours. The good news, the CDC notes, is that not every species of tick bites and transmits disease to humans. They have a handy map showing which types of ticks are found in each part of the United States.
How to at least try and prevent tick bites
Sadly, I can say from experience that no matter how well-prepared you are, ticks can and will still bite you. The traditional advice from the TickEncounter Resource Center used to be to use DEET repellents, tuck your pants into your socks, walk in the center of the trail and do a thorough tick check when you get home. But that doesn’t always cut it.
Now, they instruct people to treat their shoes, socks, shorts/pants and shirt with permethrin tick repellent the day before spending time outdoors. If you take the time to treat your clothes with permethrin, it lasts for a while: clothing treated at home can be washed up to six times and remain effective, while store-bought treated clothing can be effective after 70 washes.
Furthermore, the CDC recommends taking a hot shower within two hours of being outdoors because it has been shown to reduce your risk of getting Lyme disease, and may be effective in reducing the risk of other tick-borne diseases. Additionally, showering may help wash off ticks that are not fully latched onto your body.
What to do if you have a tick bite
Basically, you want to make sure you remove the tick the proper way, and then wash the area with warm, soapy water. Your best best is to read up on how to do that now so that you’re prepared in the event of a tick bite later.