What Makes Lyme Disease Tick

Black-legged ticks (aka deer ticks) rocketed into the "scary bug" limelight back in 1975, when doctors in Old Lyme, Connecticut, finally learned what was behind an oddball outbreak of 50 cases of "juvenile rheumatic arthritis" in their area. Turns out it wasn't arthritis (and ticks aren't bugs). It was borreliosis, up till then a rare disease. So rare that the new name, "Lyme disease," stuck.

It's a baddie

Lyme disease was uncommon while deer, which were hunted out in much North America and the world, remained uncommon. Now that deer are commonplace where people also are — in suburbs and parks — Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease in North America. A difficult-to-diagnose disease, this is one you don't want to get. But don't panic. Your risk of getting Lyme disease is low.

Take a hike!
Don't let tiny ticks keep you out of the woods.
• Check for ticks when you get back to your home or camp.
• Throw your clothes in a hot dryer.

1. Don't pity Bambi (Paul Curtis)

Deer don't get Lyme disease — they simply provide adult deer ticks with a snug winter home and transport to new places. But mice and other critters are susceptible.

(Jim Occi, BugPics, Bugwood.org)

What makes ticks tick

Ticks are bloodsuckers by profession. If they don't get any blood, baby ticks can't grow into adults and adults can't lay eggs. Baby ticks, called larvae, and juvenile ticks, or nymphs, usually latch onto mice or birds for their meals. But they could as easily grab onto you.

Larval ticks can't spread Lyme disease because they have to catch it from infected mice or other critters first. But by the time they grow into nymphs or adults, the ticks could be infected — and pass it on.

Of course, not every tick is infected. And you've got up to 24 hours to find and remove ticks before they can begin transmitting Lyme disease. Dog ticks aren't known to carry Lyme disease.

Who's at risk?

Anyone. Pets and livestock can get Lyme disease too, but some don't show any symptoms and others get very sick.

Where the ticks are

Ticks climb onto tall grass or low bushes that animals like us might brush up against. Sometimes they drop onto lawns from birds passing by. When we come along, they try to scramble aboard. They're way too tiny for you to feel as they search for a good feeding site.

Ticks do well in damp, shady places and cool, cloudy weather. If they dry out, they die.

Maybe deer ticks haven't gotten to your area yet. But someday they will. Don't be the traveler who unknowingly brings deer ticks home.

2. Up close and personal (Gary Goff)

Deer ticks are tiny and hard to see. Nymphs — the growth stage that many researchers think is most prone to transmitting the disease — are about the size of a poppy seed. Females are bigger than males. A good magnifying lens will help you identify them.

(Jim Occi, BugPics, Bugwood.org)

Keeping clear of deer ticks

In tick country, wear light-colored pants and long-sleeved shirts, the better to spot the dark-colored ticks. Tuck your pants into your socks and your shirt into your pants. Use tick repellents such as permethrin or DEET according to the label.

Clearing ticks off you

Check yourself and your family and pets right after hiking or playing outside. Be thorough! Mirrors will help if there's no one else around.

What to do if …
An early sign of Lyme disease is a slowly expanding red rash. But not everyone gets it. Others signs include fatigue, headaches, pain or stiffness in muscles or joints (including your neck or jaw), fever, swollen glands, or pink eye. Got symptoms? Call your doctor. Now, if you're pregnant.
Learn more about deer ticks click here!
Learn about protecting yourself from ticks click here!

For more information on IPM, click here!

Mary Woodsen is a science writer with the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program at Cornell University. Bugs and bats; dandelions and diseases like dollar spot; farming, gardening, houseplants — she writes about them all.