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What you need to know about Blacklegged Ticks and Lyme Disease

There are plenty of biting insects out there. Although annoying, most biting insects cause no harm to humans or animals. The exceptions are the blood-feeding pests that can vector many etiological pathogens, such as mosquitoes and ticks. In the U.S., the Black Legged tick, also known as the deer tick, can spread the Lyme disease bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi. The related species in Europe is the Castor Bean Tick (sheep tick) and the Taiga tick in Asia. Dog ticks, Lone star ticks and other types of ticks aren’t able to transmit Lyme disease.

Ixodes scapularis (Blacklegged ticks or Deer Tick) are known for harboring Lyme disease.

Scientists predict the warming climate will cause an increase in reported cases of tick-borne illnesses in many regions. This is mostly caused by the population explosion of the white-footed mice population, which carry Lyme disease.

Here we discuss what you need to know about the Lyme-disease tick and best practices to avoid bites.

Where Blacklegged (Deer) Tick Hide

Lyme disease does not occur everywhere. In the United States, it is concentrated heavily in the Northeast (Virginia to Maine), the upper Midwest (Wisconsin and Minnesota), and coastal Northern California. When in these areas, be sure to take extra precaution. Generally, you can find deer ticks where the animals they feed on live. This usually includes areas near water, shady areas, and overgrown grassy areas because ticks need high humidity to survive. Ticks may be more common in these areas –

  • Around trail shelters due to the population of mice. Newly hatched ticks often take their first blood meal from mice.
  • In areas where there is a high population of white-tailed deer. Adult ticks rely on white-tailed deer to reproduce.
  • Questing on tall grasses, especially near water sources and shade.
  • Crawling within piles of leaves.
  • On you or your pet? Hopefully not! Always check yourself and your pets. Ticks generally crawl up on your body, preferring to feed around the head, neck, and ears where the skin is thinner and easier to penetrate.

Recognize the Blacklegged Tick

Unfed female Blacklegged deer tick after feeding.

Knowing how to identify a biting tick is important to determine if further action is required. Female ticks readily attack and feed on blood and difficult to identify

Blacklegged ticks have reddish-orange hind bodies with black dorsal markings. It is easier to see these features when the female is unfed. As female ticks feed over the course of several days, their bodies slowly enlarge with blood and will appear gray when engorged. Adult female ticks can feed for several days up to a month. Once it engorges by sucking in as much blood as it can, it’ll drop off.

An engorged female Blacklegged tick after a blood meal appears gray in color.

Male ticks do not transmit Lyme disease, human anaplasmosis, or babesiosis because they do not feed on blood. Males may climb on you, but will not bite.

Tick LifeStages

Ticks change hosts during their life stages (larva, nymph, and adult), which is why they are a vector for disease.

Larval (Seed) ticks

Seed ticks are the size of a poppy seed. Luckily, they do not carry pathogens at this stage.

Larval or seed ticks emerge from eggs in May – September to take their first blood meal. They are tiny, about the size of a period at the end of a sentence. Because they are so small, they may show up as a speck of dirt on your skin, and you may not notice them at all. This is okay because seed ticks initially do not carry diseases, such as Lyme disease or babesiosis. It can ingest diseases during its first meal only if the host animal is infected with a disease-causing pathogen. If the seed tick gets infected, it can transmit the disease after the next feeding (the following spring).

Seed ticks typically attach to small animals, such as mice and chipmunks. Once fully engorged on the blood meal, it will drop off the animal host and disperse to nearby plants, where it will become dormant through the winter and emerge into a nymph the following spring.

Nymphal ticks

Nymphal female deer ticks are small and often go unnoticed. They are the cause of most Lyme disease in humans. Photo by Stuart Meek via Wikimedia Commons.

Nymph ticks emerge from May-July of the second year to take their second blood meal. These are the ones you need to be careful with! They are now the size of a poppy seed on your skin. You won’t realize you’ve been bitten because they are small and their bite painless.

Nymphal ticks cause most cases of Lyme disease. About 25 to 30 percent of U.S. nymphal deer ticks carry the Lyme disease bacterium. If the tick is carrying disease agents from its first feeding in the larval stage, it can transmit them during this second feeding. If the nymph was not already infected, it could become infected from the blood meal of the second animal host.

The nymph-stage deer tick attaches to larger animals such as squirrels, rabbits, dogs, cats, and humans.

Adult ticks

Adult ticks molt from nymphs in the fall of the second year to take their third blood meal. They are now the size of a small sesame seed and much easier to see. Adult females infected with disease agents as larvae or nymphs may transmit disease during this feeding.

The adult ticks feed and mate on large animals, such as deer in the fall or early spring.  The female lays her eggs, then dies.

How Ticks find a Host

Ticks can’t jump, fly, or drop from trees. Instead, they perch on the tips of grasses and shrubs in a position referred as “questing” with their upper legs outstretched to quickly grasp onto a host. Adult ticks can perch on plants for months waiting for prey to brush up against it. Once the tick climbs aboard an animal or human, it will crawl around to find a suitable spot to dig in and feast.

For most tick-borne diseases, you have at least 24 hours to find and remove a feeding tick before it transmits an infection.

  • The longer the tick is attached, the greater the risk of acquiring the disease from it. If you remove a feeding tick within 24 hours, you can significantly reduce your chances of getting Lyme disease. In general, a tick needs to be attached for at least 36 hours before it can transmit the Lyme disease-causing bacteria. 
  • It is impossible to remove a tick promptly if you do not even know it is there. Always check your entire body for ticks before sleeping for the night. Pay particular attention to the scalp, behind the ears, armpits, the back of the neck, between toes, and the groin. Ask for help or use a mirror for hard-to-see areas.
  • The safest way to remove a tick is with a pointy tweezer. Grab as close to the skin as possible and pull straight out. Don’t worry if the mouth stays attached to your skin as long as you’ve got the rest of the tick by its head. Don’t waste time using folk remedies of Vaseline, glue, nail polish, or burnt match heads to remove ticks ― they don’t work.

How to Repel Ticks

Blacklegged ticks are most active from April – October. Like all biting insects, ticks find you because you exhale carbon dioxide (CO2), not body heat or odor.

To minimize your chances of a tick attaching –

  • Cover up in tick-infested areas. Wear pants instead of shorts and tuck your pants into your socks. Wear long sleeve shirts if you will be on a narrow trail or bushwhacking.
  • Wear a hat.
  • Wear light-colored clothing to make it easier to spot ticks.
  • Use insect repellents, preferably picaridin or IR3535 on the skin. Natural essential oils that are scientifically proven to repel insects as effectively or better than DEET include Lemon Eucalyptus, Catnip, Cedarwood, Citronella, and Neem.
  • Insect-shield clothing. We don’t recommend purchasing clothing with permethrin, classified by the EPA as a likely human carcinogen. Instead, spray your clothing with a natural environmentally friendly repellent made from botanicals. The most effective tick repellent is made from a substance called nootkatone, which is found in Alaska yellow cedar trees and grapefruit. Nootkatone is patented with one CDC-registered company, Evolva, which expects to begin selling it in 2018.

Lyme Disease Symptoms

Lyme disease most often presents a characteristic “bull’s eye” rash at the location of the tick bite, with flu-like symptoms and joint pain, most often the knee. The signs fo infection usually occur 7 to 30 days after the appearance of the rash. These symptoms do not occur in all people, however. Lyme disease is a multi-system disease and can impair brain functioning. If you are bitten by a tick in an area with a high rate of Lyme disease, you should contact your doctor.

Additional Info
These 14 states contained 95% of confirmed Lyme disease cases in 2015
What the CDC says about ticks.
Efficacy of plant-derived nootkatone

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2 thoughts on “What you need to know about Blacklegged Ticks and Lyme Disease”

  • Hello,

    I hope that you are fine.
    I WOULD like to ask for permission to use the first image of Ixodes scapularis
    in a paper that I am writing.

  • Hello,

    I would like to ask for permission to use this image of tick in a paper that
    I am writing. Thanks for your reply.



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