Recently it seems like the summer season has become dominated by a rather unwelcome guest: the tick. Just the thought of these alien-like arachnids can send shivers down one’s spine, but if you enjoy the outdoors or have children or pets that do, you’ll probably encounter them sooner or later.
If it seems like you're seeing more of them only recently (an uptick, one might say), that's because it's true! Ontario’s tick population and range is growing and expanding every year, encouraged by the movement of animals, the warm weather, and our deciduous tree cover. In North America, the warmer winter seasons aren't killing off much of the tick population, meaning we’re going to deal with more ticks in 2017 and beyond.
Blacklegged ticks, also known as deer ticks, get the most press because they’re the ones that carry Lyme disease. Spreading out from Ontario, blacklegged ticks are now in Manitoba, southern Quebec, and moving into the Maritime provinces, and this has been reflected in the number of Lyme disease diagnoses in recent years – in 2009, there were 144 cases; in 2015, the number had shot up to 944.[i] It’s not just Lyme disease, though; alpha-gal allergy, the dreaded meat allergy, is contracted from Lone Star ticks that are now making their way into Canada, and the little-known Powassan virus is spread through blacklegged and groundhog ticks.[ii]
A female blacklegged tick (via Flickr)
The life of a tick isn’t much different from the majority of other organisms, in that they have two purposes: feeding and reproducing. But while fellow-bloodsuckers like mosquitos only live upwards of 50 days, ticks can live up to three years, growing through a cycle wherein they need blood at every stage.
After they hatch, the larval ticks find and attach themselves to a host, like a bird or small rodent, upon which they can feed for several days. They grow into the nymph phase and, detached from the host, remain inactive during the freezing winter months, wintering in the ground or leaf litter. They find another host come spring, feeding again and dropping off to molt into adulthood. The adults find a third host to get them through the fall, wherein the males usually die but the females lay eggs and survive in the tree detritus until spring, when the cycle begins again.[iii]
Blacklegged ticks are most active in late spring and summer, but this doesn’t mean you’re free and clear come winter; freezing temperatures kill a lot of the tick population, but any time the weather is above freezing, they can be feeding. Climate change and abnormally high winter temperatures mean ticks are not just spreading further and further, but are active longer.
Ticks are spread through new areas by hitching rides with birds and mammals as larvae. If enough tick larvae are saturated into new areas, and there are enough hosts to sustain them, their populations grow. This means that if they make it into your home, chances are they won’t live longer than 24 hours. Even if they have successfully feed on your pets or (perish the thought) you, they won’t live for more than three days without the right conditions and another host. They thrive in damp environments, preferring thick grasses and shaded, woody areas, and need more than one host.
While large adult ticks loom in our imagination, it's the nymph tick that is the most dangerous for Lyme disease transmission. To contract it, the tick usually has to be attached for 36 to 48 hours, and because the nymph is smaller, it's easier to overlook than an adult tick.[iv]
Ticks detect a suitable host via the scent receptors on their legs. They can't fly, but rest on tall grasses and shrubs on their back with their legs up and olfactory receptors out, detecting the breath and odor of carbon-based species. If you pass one, it will latch on mainly at the feet and ankle areas and crawl up looking for an optimal place to pierce the skin. They tend to hang out in tall grassy, woody areas.
There are natural ways of keeping ticks off you. Colleen Hague of Awaken My Senses Organics says that there are essential oils with properties that can prevent ticks from finding your skin attractive. “The three most powerful oils to deter ticks are Eucalyptus Lemon, Lemongrass, and Rose Geranium," she says. “These three oils contain high amounts of chemicals like Citronellol, Citronellal, Geraniol, Geraniall, Neral and Nerol, ingredients known to be insecticidal. These chemicals are also the contributors to the powerful scent the oil has and its ability to emit this scent for longer periods.”
Here’s what each essential oil contains:
Lemon Eucalyptus: It contains 80% citronellal and 5% citronellol, two related compounds that give off not only a pleasant citrusy aroma, but have great repellent qualities.
Rose Geranium: This is made up pf 30% citronellol, 25% geraniol, and 35% nerol, which makes it a great insecticide with a lovely, rosy smell.
Colleen also has great advice on how to mix them for a great insect repellant. Word of caution: do not ingest these essential oils! Only use them topically.
Blend all the essential oils together and add to the distilled water. Pour into a dark (amber or blue) plastic bottle. Shake well before applying. This mixture should be applied every 30 – 45 minutes when outdoors.
“When I make a tick spray, I add Peppermint to keep away mosquitoes and, to a small degree, black flies," she says. "I make mine using distilled water as a base, that way I can spray my shoes, socks, pants, etc. The blend needs to be shaken every time you use it as the oils are not soluble in water.” It’s important to use them diluted; some oils are known to irritate the skin and eyes.
Keeping ticks off your skin often comes down to choosing the right clothes when leaving for the great outdoors. Wear long sleeves and pants when in any wooded areas. Light-coloured clothing lets you see if any ticks get into your clothing; thoroughly wash and dry your clothes – a dryer on high heat for 60 minutes should kill any possible unwanted hitchhikers. Shower after spending time in grassy or wooded areas to wash any ticks down the drain.[vi]
Other advice: keep the grass short, so as not to give ticks a better vantage point on which to attach themselves to you, and check the fur of your pets when they come in from the outdoors, especially if they have long hair.
A viral video went around earlier this summer of a woman drowning a feeding tick in peppermint oil; the tick pulls itself out of her skin and wants to get as far away from the oil as possible. It appears to work like magic: the ticks that have embedded themselves in the skin just get rid of themselves, right?
Wrong. Peppermint might not be conducive to ticks, but you should never aggravate them once they’ve dug into your skin. They can salivate and regurgitate as they try to escape, emptying everything – including the diseases they might be carrying – into your bloodstream. This is also why you should never suffocate them or try burning them out, either.[vii] The essential oils recommended above should be used as bug repellents and not once a tick has bitten you.
The safest way to remove a tick is with a pair of fine point tweezers, grabbing at the mouth and not the body of the tick. Squeezing the gut can force any diseases out of the tick and into your body.[viii]
Of course, the best way to deal with ticks is to not have to deal with any ticks! Use the preventive mix of essential oils and smart outdoor strategy to keep yourself tick free this summer!