The tick on my shoulder, crawling across my green fleece jacket, was looking for a hot meal. Specifically, blood. More specifically, my blood.
Standing outside our vehicle after a two-hour hike through the woods in Belfast on Oct. 23, my husband, Derek, and I were checking our clothing and our dog for ticks.
We found quite a few.
In Maine, ticks are most active during the spring and fall, when the weather is cool, but not freezing. Also, in the fall, ticks are looking to attach to a warm body that will carry them through winter. Perching on the tips of grass blades and leaves, they reach out with their long front legs and wave them through the air, ready to cling to whatever happens to brush by. This behavior is called “questing.”
Is your skin crawling yet?
Ticks are a big problem for people and their pets in Maine and elsewhere. These little pests carry a plethora of diseases that they can transfer through their bite.
Think this doesn’t apply to you? Odds are, you know someone who is battling Lyme disease — transmitted by the deer tick — or has fought this disease in the past.
Lyme disease is a serious bacterial infection that attacks different systems in the body and can be chronic, and if untreated by antibiotics, deadly. To learn more, visit www.lymedisease.org.
And seriously, if you don’t know much about Lyme disease and you live in the northeast, you should probably snap to it.
In 2015, 1,171 confirmed and probable cases of Lyme disease were reported among Maine residents. This number has been steadily growing annually since the first case of Lyme disease was reported in Maine in 1986.
Then there are other tick-borne diseases.
It’s like a zombie apocalypse, the key difference being that you don’t actually turn into a tiny member of the arachnid family when a tick feeds on you. You just might contract a serious disease.
Oh… and your dog can get the disease too. (I know that for some of you, that’s really the last straw. Humans getting sick? That’s bad. But dogs getting sick? Hell. No.)
So now that you’re ready to wage war on ticks… time to suit up.
The best defense against ticks is to cover your skin with light colored clothing (which makes it easy to spot them) and tick repellent (check out Permethrin). Then, avoid prime tick habitat — places with underbrush, leaf litter and tall grasses.
However, if you’re like me, even the mounting tick apocalypse won’t keep me from enjoying the Maine woods. I’m going to find myself in tick habitat. So it’s important for me to conduct regular “tick checks,” searching my clothing and skin for these tiny pests and getting them off me before they can do any damage.
Tick checks are effective because — while researchers are still gathering information about this — it appears that ticks need to be attached to a person’s skin for several hours before it can transmit any diseases. The sooner you find them and get them off (or out) of your skin, the better.
Heading back to Oct. 23… when we completed our hike, we conducted tick checks. Naturally, I started with my dog, Oreo, who wore a blaze orange jacket. I found two ticks on that.
Since I was in full tick battle mode, my first instinct was to squish the tick between two rocks, thus ending its rampage on the critters and people of the Maine wilderness. But I’ve been told by tick experts at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension that disposing of a tick in such fashion can be dangerous. If the tick’s body bursts and you get its guts into a wound (ew), such as a cut on your hand, you can contract a disease the tick carries.
So I flung both ticks to the ground, then got to work combing through Oreo’s short fur with my fingers to find four more ticks — none of them burrowed into his skin.
Once satisfied Oreo was tick free, we let him into the back seat of the car and looked over our own clothing. That’s when Derek pointed out the tick on my shoulder — which I brushed off with disgust. After that, we found a few more, all on our clothing, none on our skin. Then, certain we’d gotten them all, we jumped into the car with Oreo to head home.
But our battle wasn’t over.
Derek was driving. I was in the passenger seat. And Oreo was shifting around in the back.
A few minutes had gone by when Derek asked calmly, “Can you get that one off me?”
I looked over to see a tiny tick crawling on his right wrist, which he was holding out in front of me. Wide-eyed, I plucked the tick off with my index finger and thumb. Then, keeping it squished between my fingers, I rolled down the window, stuck my hand outside and released the tick, all the while praying the wind wouldn’t blow it back through the window and into my hair.
A few more minutes passed.
“There’s one on Oreo’s head,” Derek said, looking at the dog in the rearview mirror.
I turned around to see a tick crawling across the short white hair on Oreo’s forehead. Again, I plucked it off, rolled down the window, stuck my hand out as far as I could, and let the tick go.
I then found one on Oreo’s paw and repeated the procedure.
A few more minutes passed.
“Can you get that one?” Derek asked calmly, his eyes on the road and his voice on the verge of sounding disinterested.
“Where?” I asked.
He pointed to a tick crawling across his lap.
Again… Pluck, roll, reach, release.
“There’s one on Oreo’s neck,” Derek said, again looking in the rearview mirror.
Exasperated and covered in goosebumps, I turned around and looked Oreo over.
“Where? How did you even see it?” I asked.
“By your hand,” Derek replied.
I saw nothing.
“Why don’t you just pull over?” I suggested, then spied the tick and plucked it off.
“There you go,” he said.
For the remainder of the car ride, we were scratching our skin at the slightest itch. Even Derek admitted to being creeped out, despite his perpetually calm demeanor.
Needless to say, when we got home, our clothes went straight in the washing machine. But later, a few readers pointed out that ticks don’t easily drown (though flushing them down the toilet is a perfectly fine way of disposing of them). To kill any lingering ticks on your clothing, it’s much more effective to tumble your clothing in the dryer on high heat. Here’s an article posted by the USDA that outlines an experiment that supports this method.
We also took showers, and we searched Oreo’s short hair with a fine-toothed comb.
The only thing that could have made that car ride worse would have been if we’d been pulled over for littering.