Manicured yards, sunlight are natural tick defenses

If, after a day in the great outdoors, you experience sudden and strange skin sensations and spend untold minutes trying to find their sources, you've joined countless others who find themselves on "tick patrol," a stomach churning personal investigation. And according to experts at the University of Kentucky, if you've spent any time in tick territory, that's not a bad habit.

Ticks can play an important role in human and animal health because they feed on several hosts during their life cycle. Fortunately, only a very small percentage of ticks and their hosts are infective. Ticks attach themselves firmly to a host and often go unnoticed as they feed for hours or days. In Kentucky, the two most common species of ticks are the American dog tick and the lone star tick, named not for Texas but for the single white spot on its back. Though neither species is a carrier of Lyme disease, the American dog tick can carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and Southern Tick Associated Rash Illness (STARI) is associated with lone star ticks. STARI is a relatively new phenomenon that is in the initial stages of being investigated.

Ticks go through four stages during their lifespan: egg, six-legged larva (occasionally called a seed tick), eight-legged nymph and adult. A tick will feed once during each of the final three stages, feeding on a host for several days. When sated, it drops off and molts into the next and larger stage, until it procreates as an adult.

It's true that a bite from this tiny arachnid can be very unpleasant. The saliva that they inject while feeding can cause intense irritation around the feeding site that can last for a week or more. Also these bites can become infected if scratched, said Lee Townsend, University of Kentucky entomologist. Fortunately, few ticks carry disease. For instance, only about 1 to 3 percent of lone star ticks are thought to carry STARI. Those ticks that do carry disease require several hours of feeding to transmit the pathogen.

Maintaining a groomed landscape is one means of controlling the tick population. Townsend said ticks like humid, shady, overgrown areas. Keeping grass mown and thickets of weed trees trimmed back to allow sunlight into an area will dissuade ticks from populating.

When you're outdoors in overgrown areas, he recommends taking precautions. Being alert to ticks on your body or your pet can help ward off illness.

"To be able to easily spot ticks crawling on you, wear light-colored clothing," he said. "Tuck your pants into your socks and your shirt into your pants to keep ticks from finding their way under your clothes. I'd also recommend using a repellant. DEET can be applied to the skin and permethrin-based clothing treatments can be sprayed on the lower pant legs."

There are topical preventatives for pets, as well. Although they don't prevent ticks from biting the animal, they will kill a tick before it likely has time to transmit disease.

He also suggested walking in the center of trails when in the woods, rather than through underbrush or leaf litter, where ticks may be waiting for a warm-blooded mammal to pass by.

It's important to inspect yourself regularly and remove ticks as soon as they're found. Washing clothing in detergent and hot water immediately after getting home will help keep your home free of ticks. If this isn't practical, put clothing into a sealed plastic bag until it can be washed.

But sometimes ticks manage to get past all of the barriers. In that case, use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin surface as possible and pull with steady, even pressure. Do not twist or jerk the tick, as that might cause the mouthparts to break off and remain under the surface. If that happens, remove the mouthparts as you would a splinter. Townsend said not to handle a tick with bare hands and never crush or puncture its body because its saliva and gut contents may contain infectious organisms that could enter your body through breaks in the skin.

After removing the tick, disinfect the area of the bite and wash your hands with soap and water.

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