By Hannah Foster
Oh no! You’ve found a tick! Who ya gonna call? TICKSPOTTERS!
Maybe ticks haven’t started popping up in your neighborhood yet, but they probably will soon. That’s why it’s important to have what I like to call an “Emergency Tick Protocol,” or ETP. Here’s an example of a typical ETP I used prior to just a few weeks ago:
1) Suppress strong feelings of disgust and panic.
2) Frantically attempt to remove the tick using matches and tweezers, while taking extreme care to not rip the body off the head, for fear that the tick head will continue to suck my blood forever.
3) Dispose of the tick in the toilet with swiftness and agility rivaled only by Olympic sprinters.
This ETP was informed primarily by folk legend I learned as a kid; I never knew there could be a better ETP out there, but there is.
First off, nowhere in my ETP was there ever a step that included “Take photo of tick and save for disease testing.” In fact, if you asked me a few weeks ago if I ever saved the ticks I found, I would have thought you were a little bit crazy.
However, I recently learned that there’s a good reason to hold on to the ticks we come across — especially if we find them attached to ourselves or our pets. Different tick species carry different diseases, and their bites are associated with varying degrees of risk, even depending on the tick stage and how long the tick has been feeding. Thus, knowing the species of tick, its life stage, and the diseases it may carry can be critical for your health. But how does one gain such information?
Fortunately we have at our fingertips a resource with all the information we need to best protect ourselves from tick bites and tick-borne illnesses. Dr. Thomas Mather, director of the University of Rhode Island’s TickEncounter Resource Center (TERC), and his outreach team realized the importance of having a tool for people to gain accurate seasonally- and spatially-relevant information on ticks and the diseases they carry. To address this need, the group started the TERC in 2006. On this site, you can find information about tick biology, descriptions of the most common tick-borne illnesses, advice regarding the most effective methods of tick-bite prevention, step-by-step instructions for how to remove a tick (hint: it does NOT involve matches!), tons of interesting facts, a blog, and many other resources in case you want to know more.
TERC can also help identify ticks that you find (or that find you). In 2013 the group started TickSpotters, an online service that allows you to submit a photo of any tick you find for identification. You may be able to identify the tick from TERC’s handy identification chart. However, tick identification can be really tricky, so TickSpotters uses the submitted photograph to identify the tick for you (or confirm your identification). They then send you a customized message about your tick and the potential pathogens it could be carrying. In addition, they advise you on how to protect yourself from further bites, and whether or not you might want to have the tick tested as a further assessment of disease risk.
In addition to identifying ticks to help individuals, the crowd-sourced data being generated by these citizen-scientist tick encounter submissions will be useful as support for tick risk-warning systems and for monitoring changing patterns in tick occurrence. In 2014, TERC received nearly 10,000 reports of ticks from every state in the United States, every province in Canada, and even countries in Africa and Europe. Currently, TickSpotters data helps inform TERC’s useful current tick activity application, which displays current tick risk levels in each region of the U.S.
Knowing the current tick activity can make you more aware of your likelihood of a tick encounter before leaving the house, so you’ll know how much protection you’ll need to ensure your safety. For instance, I had no idea that I should be watching for ticks by April here in Massachusetts, where the colossal snow piles from the winter have barely even melted. When I checked the tick activity for New England, however, I found that blacklegged ticks (also known as deer ticks) are out and about IN HIGH NUMBERS, and I imagine they’re hungry. This knowledge is valuable, since blacklegged ticks are the carriers of Lyme disease — the most common tick-borne illness in North America. Thanks to TERC, I now know that I need to guard myself better against ticks and begin flea and tick treatment for my pets, even if it still feels like winter.
The TickSpotters tool was created for ordinary people to gain critical information about ticks and the diseases they carry, but the data generated from TickSpotters may also turn out to be useful for public health workers. For instance, many doctors discount symptoms of Lyme disease if they live in regions where blacklegged ticks have historically not been found. However, submissions to TickSpotters reveal that people are finding the carrier of Lyme disease in areas where the tick previously was rarely or never observed. When doctors across the U.S. encounter symptoms of Lyme disease in a patient, TickSpotters may be helpful for determining whether or not the person is likely to have encountered a blacklegged tick and whether or not testing for Lyme disease is necessary.
Data from TickSpotters also reveals how tick activity is changing in various regions, as well as how much people in those areas know about ticks. This information could allow organizations to better target communities that need more information about ticks in order to protect themselves.
TERC and the TickSpotters service are most useful for people like you and me who just want to stay safe from serious illnesses. In fact, the information I’ve gained from TERC has led me to adopt a new ETP:
1) RELAX, everything is going to be OK.
2) Calmly remove tick using the method recommended by experts.
3) Photograph the tick and save the tick in a ziplock bag in case I need to have it tested.
4) Submit photograph to TickSpotters and wait 1-2 days to receive information about any further action that may be required.
Following these simple steps for dealing with a tick and checking out TERC for more information can help guard you, your family, and your furry friends from tick-borne illnesses.
Hannah Foster is a PhD student in molecular and cellular biology at Harvard University and a freelance writer. She studies protein biochemistry in microbes, and enjoys writing about science and non-science alike. You can follow her on Twitter at @Foster_HR and read her blog about boxing as it pertains to life at theblowbyblow.com. She is also a frequent contributor to Harvard Science in the News Flash and to The Bitter Empire.