Post by Jen Berlinghof
Spring seems to be a bit accelerated this year in the Lake County Forest Preserves. Trillium are already blooming at Ryerson Woods. Yesterday, I even saw a tiger swallowtail butterfly, wafting its way through the dappled light of the forest. Both of these species are typically associated with mid-May. With earlier than usual spring weather comes earlier than usual “tick season.” Like the trillium and swallowtail, ticks are a part of our natural areas.
By learning more about ticks, along with some mindful actions before you head outside, interactions with ticks can be minimized so our enjoyment of the outdoors can be maximized.
Contrary to what many people think, ticks are not insects. They are arachnids. Like spiders, they have two body parts and eight legs. In addition, ticks have intricate mouthparts designed to bite and hang onto their host, which can be any warm-blooded animal in the area, including us.
There are two species of ticks in Lake County, Illinois: deer tick (Ixodese scapularis) and wood tick (Dermacentor variabilis). Of these two species, only deer ticks can pass on Lyme disease. However, wood ticks, also referred to as American dog ticks, have the ability to pass on other bacterial infections such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever and tularemia. Ticks need 80 percent humidity to survive. Therefore, they are often found in warm, moist areas.
Wood ticks adults are twice as large as adult deer ticks. They can be easily identified by presence of white markings (near the head for females, covering the back for males) and are found most commonly in grassy areas.
Deer ticks, also known as black-legged ticks, are much smaller in size, are darker in color than wood ticks, and can transmit Lyme disease. They are found more commonly in wooded areas, sandy areas, and leaf litter.
If you notice when outdoors with family or friends that some individuals seem to be “tick magnets,” while others come off the trail tick-free, you might be onto something. Studies have shown that ticks are attracted to individuals based on their unique chemical “footprint,” or combination of naturally occurring ammonia, carbon dioxide, fatty acids, as well as perfumes, lotions and soaps. Your age, sex, movement, temperature, and even the humidity in your exhaled breath can make you a more or less inviting host to a tick.
While scientists haven’t pinpointed the exact combination of these factors that would evade ticks all together, there are still many things you can do to prevent tick interactions. You can start before you even go outdoors by choosing a “tick resistant” wardrobe. While it might not be the most fashionable, wearing light-colored, long sleeve clothing and tucking long pants into socks can help ticks from getting to your skin, and allows you to see the tiny ticks more easily. Both species of ticks are only about one-sixteenth of an inch in their nymph stage, which is what we typically see in the spring. In addition, applying insect repellent with DEET to your clothing (avoid your skin), provides another layer of defense. Products with permethrin can be used to treat boots, clothing, and gear for extended protection.
When you come in from the outdoors, check your body, clothing, and pets thoroughly. Ticks simply crawling on you or your pet cannot transmit disease. If you find a tick embedded in your skin, quick removal is important. It typically takes 24 hours for an embedded tick to transmit disease. If a tick is overlooked and is found attached to the body later you should do the following to remove it:
- Remove it immediately using small tweezers.
- Grasp the mouth parts, as close to your skin as possible.
- Pull it straight out slowly and avoid squeezing its body.
- Wash the wound site and your hands thoroughly.
- Visit a physician if unexplained rash or illness accompanied by fever develop.
With the warm weather, blooming wildflowers, and migrating birds, this early onset spring is a great time to get out and hit the Lake County Forest Preserve trails, or join us for our annual Native Plant Sale and Spring Bird Walks. Although you might encounter a tick this season, by following the recommendations above you will find that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” With some preventative measures it is easy to safely enjoy outdoor activities.