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Tick life stages

Ticks: Preparation is the best prevention

By Tina Luster and Kendall Gutt

Exploring nature means you’ll be interacting with, well, nature. And ticks can be a part of that interaction.

Ticks aren’t all bad – they’re an important link in our food chain and, in many ways, they help keep our local ecosystem healthy. Knowing about ticks can make seeing them in nature a little less scary.

Shown are the relative sizes of several ticks at different life stages. Shown are the relative sizes of several ticks at different life stages.
(Photo courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

Ticks in California

Ticks are arachnids – in the same family with spiders, mites and scorpions. They have eight legs and typically have a teardrop-shaped body. They vary in color and pattern.

Only six species out of 48 in California attach themselves to humans. Just one of those – the Western black-legged tick (Ixodes pacificus) species – carries Lyme disease. Just a small percentage of individual ticks carries the disease.

Ticks can carry other diseases, all which have similar symptoms: fever, fatigue, headaches and aches. All can be treated with antibiotics, but it's important to catch it early. If you develop a fever or a rash after hiking, call your doctor.

Two adult female blacklegged ticks are shown on a hiking boot. Two adult female blacklegged ticks are shown on a hiking boot.
(Photo courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

Preparation is the best prevention

  • Stay on the trail. Ticks hang out in tall grasses.
  • Wear a long-sleeved shirt and long pants that are fitted, but not too tight. You don’t want something flowy, which may brush up against vegetation and provide ticks a free ride.
  • Wear light colors, so ticks are visible if they are crawling on your clothing.
  • Natural insect repellants and insecticides may be helpful. Some hikers treat their clothing with permethrin. Properly treated clothes can be washed multiple times without reapplying.
  • Check your clothing and exposed skin before getting in your car to go home.
  • Once home, perform a tick check and take a shower. Check the hidden places on your body: behind your ears, on your scalp, under your armpits, in between your toes, behind your knees, in your belly button, between your legs – any dark place in your body that you think a tick might be able to hide
  • Wash your hiking clothes in hot water immediately. If you can’t, put them in the dryer, on high heat, for at least 20 minutes. Keep those clothes separate them from other laundry until you’re ready to wash them.
  • Check your hiking shoes and shoestrings.
  • If you hike with your dog, make sure to check for ticks as soon as possible. Tick treatments and collars may not repel every tick.

This illustration shows how to remove a tick (Ixodes scapularis pictured).
This illustration shows how to remove a tick - Ixodes scapularis pictured.
(Photo courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

If a tick attaches to you

As avid hikers know, ticks happen! If a tick has attached itself to you, don’t panic. There are easy ways to get them off safely.

  • Have a tick key on your key chain. Put the fat end of the teardrop-shaped hole over the tick and slide it to the skinny end. The tick should pop off easily.
  • You can also remove a tick with a sharp, thin pair of tweezers. Place the tip of the tweezers near the mouth and pull the tick firmly away from the skin.
  • Don’t twist, crush, squeeze, puncture or jerk the tick loose. Pull it straight up, otherwise, the feeding tube may stay in your skin.

Black-legged tickAn adult female western blacklegged tick, Ixodes pacificus, on a blade of grass.
(Photo courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

Ticks and our ecosystem

Ticks are an important part of our local ecosystems. They are a food source for many species of birds, reptiles and amphibians. In fact, one bird species, guinea fowl, are used by landowners to control large tick populations.

Also, studies show that opossums – North America’s only native marsupial – are consumers of ticks. They meticulously groom themselves and eat the pests, including ticks. It’s estimated that an opossum can consume about 5,000 ticks in a season.

Ecologists use ticks to determine the health of an ecosystem. An increase or decrease of the tick population lets scientists know if other species are struggling or doing well.

The good, the bad and the ugly: Ticks are a necessary nuisance and are here to stay. So, enjoy your time outdoors. And, with a little preparation, come back from your hike tick-free.

 


Tina Luster is a marketing specialist for Sonoma County Regional Parks.

Kendall Gutt is a park program assistant for Sonoma County Regional Parks.

Published June 2022