I, Ixodes, the Mighty Tick
I am Ixodes, the Mighty Tick. My full name is Ixodes Scapularis. I’m more commonly known as the deer tick. You may have met me during your outdoor adventures. I’m the little brown thing stuck on your leg that you can’t pull off. That bug you’ve heard so many bad stories about.
This is my true life story.
Life as a Baby
I started life as an egg. Inside my egg was enough food to last a couple of months. After that I had to push my way out and hustle for my own grub. Tiny? I was no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence. I had six legs, not that you could see them without a magnifying glass.
When I first got out, I didn’t have a clue what to do next. But I had that wonderful thing called instinct. I had the sense to crawl up on a leaf near the ground and wait for dinner to come to my door.
Then, what do you know? A fat mouse appeared. I could smell it, hear it, and even feel its body heat. Suddenly, it all made sense. What I needed for dinner was blood from that mouse.
An Eating Machine
I scrambled onto the mouse’s fur and looked for a place to eat. I knew then that I was an eating machine! For a mouth, I had a long, prickly sticker with a tube inside. I sank the tube into the mouse’s skin. When it was in, I spread my body out and got ready to stuff myself.
You may ask, how did I get by with this nasty sticking and biting? Why didn’t the mouse feel anything? My saliva has a chemical that numbs the skin. Another chemical acts like glue to keep my body fastened in place so I won’t be scratched off.
All I had to do was sit there and suck through my tube like a kid with a straw in a milk shake. When I was full, I squirted out another chemical to dissolve the glue.
After I was done with dinner, I was almost 200 times bigger than when I started. A really fat dude. Because my shell was practically bursting, I had to get rid of it and grow a new one. That’s called molting. When the shell had fallen away, my soft underbelly was completely exposed to any bird that fancied a snack. It was a scary time. It took a month for the new shell to grow on. In the bargain, I got two extra legs, making eight in all.
At this point, I was ready to eat again.
The Bad News
Some mice—like the one I bit—carry viruses in their blood that cause Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease. If the mouse I bit was infected, it meant that I was, too. And if I was infected, any human I dined on would get the disease.
People who get Lyme disease are in for a bad trip. They run a fever, their body aches, and they’re tired all the time. A red rash starts around the tick bite. In a few days a red ring forms around a clear circle, like a bull’s eye. If the disease is diagnosed quickly and the doctor starts an antibiotic, the person will probably recover. If not, they’ll have all kinds of medical problems and may never get well.
Rocky Mountain spotted fever is worse. It starts out with a rash. A week or two after the bite, people get so sick that they end up in the hospital. They can’t breathe right, hear, or talk clearly. Unless given antibiotics quickly, three of four infected humans die.
Tips for Humans
You’re safe if you find a tick on your skin before it starts feeding. It takes ticks a while to find a warm safe spot. The humans who know what they’re doing grasp a tick near the head with tweezers and pull straight out. They don’t twist the tick or leave a chopped off head in the skin, where it can still cause an infection.
Smart people put the dead tick in a jar for a couple of weeks until they’re sure they’re not getting sick. If they find a rash or feel funny, they go to a doctor and take the tick body in a jar for lab testing.
- Spray your clothes with permethrin before going out in the woods. It lasts for a month, even after laundering.
- Spray your skin with Deet.
- Stay on trails instead of hiking through the undergrowth.
- If you take a dog, put a flea collar on it or be sure it’s current on tick prevention medicine.
- Do a full-body check of your skin after you’ve been in the woods.
- If you find a tick remove it with a pair of tweezers, pulling straight out. Be sure to get the head along with the body.
- Shower when you get in, never giving ticks a chance to hunt for a good feeding place.
- Wash your clothes.