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Myths About Ticks

A tick’s goal is to reach your head, but it’s a journey that begins at your feet.

A walk through the woods or even playing in the yard could expose you to ticks. They can be harmful, so it’s important to understand the facts – and the misconceptions about them – in order to protect yourself.    

Michael Dryden is a distinguished professor of veterinary parasitology at Kansas State University and one of the world’s leading experts on ticks. He says the most common myth is that they fall onto our heads out of trees. In reality, ticks hang out in grasses and low shrubs. When you walk by, they ambush you and rapidly crawl up your body.

“The first piece of bare skin they hit is right above your collar. So you feel that and you reach back and you grab at it. This tick is on the base of your neck by your ear or your hairline, and you look up. It’s a natural thing that we do,” says Dryden. “There is no indication or evidence that these ticks are falling out of trees.”

Another commonly held notion is that all ticks carry Lyme disease. Dryden says it depends on where you are and the tick population. In most areas, only a small percentage of ticks carry Lyme disease or other pathogens. 

However, he says if you find one on you, it has to be removed. There are plenty of old wives’ tales on how to do it.

“There was a study done back in the 1980s that looked at these various tick-removal methods. They tried using petroleum jelly and even a lit match. Those techniques don’t hold any credence, but they’re really common myths,” says Dryden.

“The best way to remove a tick is to use a pair of tweezers. Grab the tick as close to the skin as possible and then pull it straight out,” he says.

Most people say the tick’s head has to come out. Dryden says if you can’t remove it, don’t fret. The worst thing that will happen is that the area will develop a small welt.

Stop Them In Their Tracks

Ticks love to hang out in tall grass where it’s fairly shaded and moist. So a good defense is to keep areas like these mowed and dry. If that’s not possible and you find yourself in tick habitat, be sure to wear a repellent.

Ken Holscher is an Extension entomologist at Iowa State University. Instead of using the typical mosquito spray, he recommends a tick repellent. 

“It’s not meant to be applied to your skin; it’s meant to be applied to your clothing, where it will remain active for a long period of time,” says Holscher.

“If you understand that ticks start from the ground and work their way up, you only need to apply that product from the knees on down. You don’t need to spray down all of your clothing. You just need some protection down to where the ticks are going to start,” he says.

It’s also important to wear the appropriate clothing. That includes long pants, socks, and boots. Stick your pant legs into your socks to prevent ticks from getting to your skin. 

Holscher has another trick that makes it tough for the creepy crawlers.

“Right where the pant legs are tucked into the boots or socks, wrap that with masking tape. Wrap it a couple of times and then twist the tape so the sticky side is facing outward. Wrap it again a couple of times. It’s amazing how many ticks will get stuck on that sticky side as they start to crawl,” says Holscher. “Since they can’t crawl underneath your pants, they’ve got to crawl over them. When they hit that sticky masking tape, they get stuck there.”

Ticks can’t transmit Lyme disease unless they’re attached to you and actively feeding. That’s why it’s very important to thoroughly check your body for ticks after you’ve been outside.

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