Ticks are a dangerous nuisance during every Catskills summer. When the weather starts to warm up, these flat, tiny bloodsuckers come out of hiding to wreak havoc on humans and animals.
They bring diseases like Lyme, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Powassan Virus, and lots of others with equally unpleasant names. While we’re most familiar with Lyme, which can be treated if caught early, some of the others are incurable.
This year has been especially bad so far – we’ve already found a tick on the cat, a couple of them on our sheets, and no fewer than three have decided to crawl around on me in the last month.
One particularly horrifying incident occurred this past week, on a day I hadn’t been outside much. While I was in bed that night, I felt something in my hair. I pulled it out… and there in my fingers was a big tick, waving his creepy-crawly legs in anger. I screamed and dropped it, then made my family and cat help me find it. We did, and it was squirreled away in a plastic bag for inspection. (In case you’re wondering, the cat’s assistance in the matter was to meow and chase it thinking it was food).
Point is… they’re here. And they’re everywhere. Here are a few tips on how to defend yourself against ticks and their diseases.
Know Your Enemy
There are several types of ticks that can be found in the Catskills. They all spread different diseases, and none of them are good. This CDC list is a good start for identifying ticks, where they’re found, and what diseases they spread.
While we’re most familiar with the full-grown adults, they also come in much smaller sizes when they’re young. These young ones, called nymphs, are a fraction of the size of the full-grown ones. And as you probably realize, the adults aren’t very big… so now you’re down to checking for something that’s no bigger than a pinhead.
The older they get, the more likely they are to carry diseases. Older age means a greater number of hosts, after all, so they’ve had plenty of time to pick up some disease. That doesn’t mean the smaller ones are any less dangerous, though. If you find a tick, dispose of it properly.
When you have to go outside, wear light-colored clothes that cover as much of your skin as possible, tuck your socks in your pants (probably not fashionable, but worth it), keep your hair tied and covered as well as possible, and wear DEET on your skin. Your clothes can also be covered with permethrin for added protection.
When you have to go outside, do what you can to avoid tall grass, leaf litter, and bushes, where ticks like to hide.
If nothing else, always perform a tick check. As soon as you come inside, check yourself and others carefully for ticks that might be crawling around. They like to hide in warm, sweaty environments like armpits and hairlines.
The checking takes time, but it’s worth it. Granted, it’s no easy task if you live alone, but do the best you can.
The good news is that they’re often just crawling around, looking for a good spot. You can collect them and dispose of them quickly, before they latch on.
Defend Your Pets
Most tick-borne diseases come from feeding on deer and rodents, but they enjoy feeding on pets, too. I’ve found a few ticks on my cat over the years, usually right at the base of his neck.
We’ve used the Seresto pet collars for the past four or five years. We still find ticks crawling on him, but I haven’t seen one latched on in a while.
In March, I was worried after reading articles about the dangers of the Seresto collars. I talked to our local vet about it, and she said she believes the Seresto collars work better than any other brand and hasn’t had anyone come in with issues stemming from them.
Her recommendation was to buy the collar directly from a vet or veterinary retailer, since most of the issues were from third-party collar sellers, and apparently most vets purchase straight from the manufacturer.
What you choose to do with that information is up to you. If you’ve used an alternative and found it effective, please let me know!
If you found one that’s latched onto you (or someone you know, or your pet), try to resist panicking, crying, and screaming “GET IT OFF!“
Instead, get a good pair of tweezers or a tick remover (they often give these away at different fairs and conventions, so you may not have to buy one).
With tweezers, grasp the tick as close to the skin as you can. Pull it straight out with steady pressure, without twisting, so the mouth parts won’t break off. If the mouth does break off, you can try to get it out with the tweezers, then let it heal. If you use a tick remover, it should come with its own directions.
Wash the bite and your hands thoroughly afterward, no matter what you use to remove the tick.
Proper Tick Disposal
Whether it was just crawling on you or digging in, don’t lose it. You can try to kill it, but even if it seems dead, don’t trust it. They have hard exoskeletons that make them basically invincible to crushing. It’s pretty terrifying.
If it was crawling on you, but you feel confident you weren’t bitten, you can secure it and flush it down the toilet or drop it in alcohol.
If you might have been bitten, or know that you were, you may want to have it checked. Put it in a sealed sandwich bag and pop it in the freezer.
Depending on how quickly you want your results, you can mail your tick to a paid or free testing site. The free tick testing site in Syracuse, Thangamani Lab, takes several days to email you your results.
*July 2021 Update* I sent one of my ticks to the Thangamani Lab on May 13 and received an email on May 20 saying the tick had been received. I was told in the email that testing should take 5-7 business days, and I’d get another email after that with the results. I have not heard back from them since. Because of this, I would recommend using the service below instead.
For a faster turnaround, you can send your tick to the paid service TickCheck.com. This will get you results quicker if you’re extremely nervous about your tick. They let you know their typical turnaround time when you fill out the form.
Both remind you that their test results will not tell you whether you’ve contracted a disease. It’s always advisable to monitor yourself for symptoms such as a bull’s eye rash, fever, headache, and many others.
Visit a doctor if you’re worried. Don’t wait for availability at your own doctor if you have symptoms – you can get an appointment with an online doctor who can prescribe antibiotics promptly.
By taking precautions and knowing what to do if you find a tick, you stand a better chance of keeping these nasty bugs at bay and preventing serious illness.
Stay safe, and have a healthy summer!