Watch those ticks!

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

April 2012

Ticks are among the oldest of living creatures, having been around tens of millions of years before humans made their mark on the planet. They eagerly latch onto persons during part of their life cycle, causing illnesses such as Lyme disease, tularemia and several others. Hikers, hunters, fishermen and campers are most at risk but anyone who walks through tall grass or shrubs in ordinary suburban neighborhoods might be some tick's next meal ticket.

Most tick species are quite adept at digging in for a blood meal causing no pain to their host. That's why it's important to check for these critters every two or three hours when you are in tick country. That's especially important for children, who are more likely than their parents to go rushing through foliage where ticks await, their forelegs outstretched and ready for a warm body to brush past.

Some ticks are as big as a raisin, especially at the end of their blood meal but others, like deer ticks that are common in the northeastern United States and that transmit Lyme disease, are only about one-eighth inch long and their younger, nymphal forms are even smaller.

Summer fashion is the opposite of what is recommended to avoid tick bites: long pants tucked into socks or boots, long sleeves and a hat. Apply insect repellent to bare skin, taking care to avoid contact with the mouth and eyes. DEET, the most effective one, can be toxic to children. It should only be applied by adults, and not on children's hands, which inevitably find their way into their mouths. Certain insect repellents (permethrin) are intended for use on clothing, not on skin.

The best way to remove an attached tick is to gently and slowly lift it away from the skin with pointed forceps (tweezers). This is harder than it sounds. Not only is the tick's sucking tool, the hypostome, fitted with fishhook-like barbs that make removal difficult, some species secrete a glue-like material that helps to keep it in place. Covering the tick with nail polish or holding a match to its backside doesn't help a bit. If the body pulls away from the embedded head it usually means a trip to the emergency room, especially in areas where Lyme disease is common.

Most authorities no longer recommend antibiotics for persons bitten by a tick, though not all physicians agree.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at