Vigilance is Key to Preventing Tick Bites

Entomologist discusses strategies for avoiding ticks and the diseases they spread

May 30, 2023, 11:44 am | Laura Jesse Iles

AMES, Iowa – Ticks, and the pathogens they carry, can pose a serious risk to human health. As the weather warms and Iowans spend more time outside, the risk of tick diseases can be lowered by avoiding ticks, checking for tick hitchhikers upon returning indoors, and removing any attached ticks promptly and effectively.   

More than a dozen species of ticks can be found in Iowa, according to Laura Iles, director and extension plant pathologist with the North Central Integrated Pest Management Center. However, the three most common species are the blacklegged or deer tick, the American dog or wood tick and the lone star tick. All three species can transmit bacteria that cause disease, but only the blacklegged tick transmits Lyme disease, making it a species of particular concern.

tick on plants.While blacklegged ticks are most common in eastern and northeastern Iowa, they have been found across all 99 counties. They can be distinguished from other tick species by their black or dark brown legs, mouthparts and backs.

According to Iles, the tick life cycle contains four main stages. Between each life stage, ticks must attach to a host and feed. Immature ticks, often called “seed ticks,” are particularly small and can be difficult to spot. Immature blacklegged ticks are typically most active in June, while adult ticks are most active in May and October.

Avoiding ticks

Avoiding tick-infested areas, especially when ticks are most active, is key in preventing the transmission of tick disease.

“Ticks like moisture and tall grass,” said Iles. “Wood edges, or wooded areas with lots of undergrowth, are some of the common places that people come into contact with ticks. Ticks will crawl up vegetation, then sit at the top of the vegetation and wave their legs, which is called ‘questing.’”

When working in tick infested areas, wearing a long-sleeved shirt, shoes and long pants tucked into a pair of socks can prevent ticks from coming into contact with skin and attaching. Insect repellents can also be sprayed on the clothing to further prevent contact with ticks.

“Wearing long pants tucked into your socks can also be helpful because it means that ticks have to crawl a long way to get to where they can attach, so you are much more likely to spot them,” she said.

Another important strategy in preventing the transmission of tick vectored, illness-causing pathogens, is performing routine tick checks. If a tick is discovered while still crawling, there is no risk for disease, as ticks need to be attached to the skin to transmit pathogens.

“Pathogens such as Lyme disease cannot be transmitted unless the tick is feeding, so ticks have to be attached for 24 to 36 hours in order to transmit the disease,” said Iles. “After you’ve been in an area that may have ticks, remove clothing and place it directly into the wash to kill any ticks, then check yourself, as well as children and pets.”

Removing ticks

If a tick is discovered feeding on the skin, it should be removed as quickly as possible.

“Firmly grab the tick with a pair of tweezers as low on the body as possible, then pull directly out,” instructed Iles. “There is no way to get the tick to back out, and placing substances like Vaseline or alcohol on the tick can actually make things worse, since they might cause the tick to regurgitate the contents of its stomach back into the host.”

While ticks and the illnesses that they transmit are certainly a cause for concern, being aware of prevention strategies can prevent the spread of disease. For tick images, disease symptoms and more details, check out the recently updated Tick and Tick-Borne Diseases Pest Alert, which is free on the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Store.

Shareable photo: Closeup of a tick on a plant leaf.

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