One hot afternoon, a new Scout on his first outing ran through the campsite screaming loudly and holding his crotch. Despite the commotion, the other boys barely noticed because they were occupied trying to start a fire with a magnifying glass. After a few seconds, however, the Scoutmaster realized what was wrong and said to the closest adult leader, “Better get the first aid kit, we need to remove a tick.” It took us more time to chase the boy down and get him to cooperate than it took to pull the tick out of his body.
Ticks are very common in most rural areas, especially in California campgrounds, and most Scout backpackers have experience dealing with them. In fact, researchers from U.C. Berkeley found that if you sit on a log in Northern California for only five minutes, you have a 30% chance of getting a tick on you! There are hundreds of tick species but only a few types are interested in humans. The most common ticks in California are “dog ticks” that usually only bother your pets.
There are two big problems with ticks: 1) sometimes when they bite it hurts like crazy; and 2) ticks are the leading carriers of disease to humans in the United States (and second only to mosquitoes worldwide). From a tick bite, you can get Lyme Disease and several other unspeakable fevers.
Ticks don’t jump or fly or fall from trees. They wait patiently in their habitat for their next meal and then act quickly when they sense a feeding opportunity. Hikers can pick them up just by brushing against a leaf, blade of grass, rotting log, or anything else. Usually the transfer happens when you are sitting or lying down, like during a rest stop. Once they get onto your body, ticks look for a nice place to feed. They like moist places such as the backs of your knees, your armpits, your sweaty hair, and especially the area between your legs.
Ticks can wander around your body for hours looking for just the right patch of skin to bite. When they find what they want, the tick starts to cut you open with its sharp mouth and burrow into your skin. After the hole is big enough, the tick sticks its feeding tube right into your capillary and starts sucking as fast as it can. The feeding tube has barbs to keep it in place even if you start screaming and running around the campsite.
It’s not always painful to be bitten by a tick. Sometimes, they will secret a small amount of saliva that works like an anesthetic to keep you from feeling anything at all. So if the tick finds a place on your body without a lot of nerve endings it can feed for several days unnoticed. Then, when its little body is bursting with your blood, the tick disengages, drops to the ground, and waits for the next victim to stroll by while your blood is being digested.
If you find a tick on your body or your clothes, just flick it off (away from your buddies). If it is already biting you, find a pair of tweezers and grab the tick as close to its head or your skin as possible. Then pull it straight out with steady pressure. Don’t twist or jerk the tweezers because the mouth parts might break off in your skin. If that happens, dig around in the skin with the tweezers and pull out as many mouth parts as you can, then clean the whole area with rubbing alcohol, iodine, or even soap and water. If the bite later gets red, itchy, or swollen, you might have to go to the doctor and get the rest of the tick removed. (It just takes a few minutes if the doctor has a good magnifying glass.)
If you get really sick after an outing tell the doctor about your backpacking activities, especially if you had a tick bite. Sometimes, doctors don’t immediately think about ticks and you will want to get tested for tick-borne diseases.
The best way to avoid ticks is to wear long pants tucked smartly into your boots. DEET repellent is also effective but you have to remember to apply it even when there are no mosquitoes buzzing around to remind you. Soaking your clothes in permithrin is also effective at keeping ticks away.
It’s very important to carefully check yourself for ticks after every rest stop and especially when you get home.
Have you ever had a tick bite?