Experts are predicting a tick boom this year in some areas of the U.S., which is bad news due to the potentially deadly diseases the hardy pests can carry.
Increasingly warm winters, such as 2020-21, lead to higher tick populations because it allows them a much longer breeding period.
Ticks tend to thrive in humid climates, but drought-stricken New Mexico is home to several varieties.
June is prime tick season, experts say.
“We worry about them because they spread a lot of diseases,” said Jason Schaller, curator of entomology at the Albuquerque BioPark. “And a lot of people have severe allergic reactions to the saliva of ticks, which can result in temporary paralysis. It’s pretty freaky, actually.”
New Mexico is not home to the deer tick, which causes Lyme disease, a bacterial infection that can have lasting symptoms such as joint pain, facial paralysis and other neurological problems, especially if it goes untreated. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New Mexico had only 49 cases of Lyme disease — which also can be caused by mice — between 2000 and 2018.
Elizabeth VinHatton, an environmental scientist with the state Department of Health, said New Mexico has other types of ticks that can spread disease to humans and animals. The Rocky Mountain wood tick can spread Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which can lead to symptoms similar to those of early Lyme disease: rashes on the wrists, palms, ankles and soles, as well as a fever and headache.
VinHatton said the bacterial illness can be difficult to detect. If a patient goes to a doctor complaining of a fever and headache, she said, “The first thing he isn’t going to think of is it’s Rocky Mountain spotted fever.”
Outbreaks are not common in New Mexico, but the Navajo Nation saw more than 360 cases of Rocky Mountain spotted fever between 2003 and 2016, including 21 cases that were fatal. Many of the infections were tied to ticks thriving on the nation’s large population of stray dogs.
New Mexico is also home to the brown dog tick, which can transmit canine diseases.
Ticks attach themselves to all hosts — humans, mammals, even reptiles — the same way.
They crawl along a long blade of grass, a bush, a leaf or a tree limb and wait.
As a human or animal passes close to the tick’s ambush point, it senses the potential host through exhaled carbon dioxide.
“If you were to see a tick sitting on the end of a leaf, and you exhaled gently, it will sense you are there and start waving its legs, hoping it can climb onto you,” VinHatton said.
Schaller said ticks don’t want to be caught in the open, so they will look for a hidden place on a host’s body — behind the ears, along the hair line, in the groin area — to start feeding.
A tick will feed off a host “from hours to days,” VinHatton said.
Usually, she added, they do not spread a disease.
If you find a tick feeding on your body or your pet, use a pair of tweezers to pull it out, Schaller and VinHatton said.
VinHatton said the best way to do this is to grasp the tick at the base of the skin, where the head is, and apply firm pressure to pull the tick straight out without twisting the tweezers.
The idea of applying a hot match to a tick is a bad one, she said. The tick might react by vomiting into your skin, which can cause all sorts of other problems.
There’s no need to save the tick for postmortem testing in New Mexico.
“The state does not test ticks for bacterial diseases because they are so rare,” VinHatton said.
The best way to kill a tick after removing it is to crush it.
Don’t assume you will kill one by flushing it down the toilet. Ticks are light and tend to float. If a tick is alive when it is flushed, it could start climbing the toilet walls.
Ticks can live for up to three years. They feed three times in that life span. Females can lay thousands of eggs, which hatch in the spring.
VinHatton said the best way to prevent a tick infection is to stay on the center of trails when hiking or walking a dog.
Upon returning home, she advised, do a tick check of your body.
Pet owners should use flea and tick prevention products. Insect repellents with Deet also help ward off ticks, as well as mosquitoes, she said.
VinHatton said ticks play their role in the animal food chain by providing a good source of nutrition for birds, opossums and primates.
Schaller was more dismissive of their place in the world.
“They don’t necessarily serve a part in the overall scheme of the animal world,” he said. “They’re not really that important to anything. They carry diseases and parasites.
“But,” he added, “the chances are, if you are bitten, you will be OK.”