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How Ticks Find You and Spread Disease


Ticks carry germs that can cause a number of diseases, including Lyme disease. If you spend time outdoors, be wary of ticks, whether you’re hiking in a forest or simply relaxing on your lawn.

Ticks Don’t Hang Out Only in the Woods

Most people think ticks are found in the forest. But ticks are also found in yards, especially if wooded areas are nearby. Some research suggests that between 67 percent and 76 percent of tick bites occur in people’s yards.

Simple landscaping techniques that can help reduce ticks:

  • Remove loose leaves.
  • Clear tall grasses and brush around homes and at the edge of lawns.
  • Place a 3-ft wide barrier of wood chips or gravel between lawns and wooded areas to restrict tick migration into recreational areas.
  • Mow the lawn frequently.
  • Stack wood neatly and in a dry area, which discourages tick-bearing rodents.
  • Keep playground equipment, decks and patios away from yard edges and trees.
  • Discourage unwelcome animals (such as deer, raccoons, and stray dogs) from entering your yard by constructing fences.
  • Remove old furniture, mattresses, or trash from the yard that may give ticks a place to hide.

How Ticks Find You

Ticks find their hosts by detecting breath and body odors, or by sensing body heat, moisture and vibrations. Some species can even recognize a shadow.

Ticks pick a place to wait by identifying well-used paths. Then they wait for a host, resting on the tips of grasses and shrubs. Ticks can’t fly or jump, but many tick species wait in a position known as “questing.”

Ticks hold onto leaves and grass by their third and fourth pair of legs. They hold the first pair of legs outstretched, waiting to climb on to the host. When a host brushes the spot where a tick is waiting, it quickly climbs aboard.

Some ticks attach quickly and others will wander, looking for places like the ear, or other areas where the skin is thinner.

How Ticks Spread Disease

Ticks transmit pathogens that cause disease through their saliva while feeding on its host.

Depending on the species and stage of life, preparing to feed can take from 10 minutes to two hours. When the tick finds a feeding spot, it grasps the skin and cuts into the surface.

The tick then inserts its feeding tube. Many species also secrete a cement-like substance that keeps them firmly attached during the meal. The feeding tube can have barbs that help keep the tick in place.

Ticks also can secrete small amounts of saliva with anesthetic properties so that the animal or person can’t feel that the tick has attached itself.

A tick will suck blood slowly for several days. After feeding, most ticks will drop off and prepare for the next life stage.

Tick-Borne Diseases

Tick-borne diseases can result in mild symptoms treatable at home to severe infections requiring hospitalization.

However, early recognition and treatment of the infection decreases the risk of serious complications. See your doctor immediately if you have been bitten by a tick and experience symptoms such as a rash or fever.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases (NCEZID), Division of Vector-Borne Diseases (DVBD);  Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Vol. 76, Issue 7, July 2001, pp 713-724.

Reviewed by Sean McNeely, MD, who specializes in urgent care and Family Medicine at UH Urgent Care facilities in Brook Park and Beachwood.

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