For the most part, I’m a fairly unsqueamish person. I actively like snakes and reptiles—as long as they’re not actively trying to bite me—and I have a relaxed “live and let live” attitude towards most insects. The operant word in that last sentence is “most,” because there’s one notable exception: ticks. All ticks, everywhere, forever. I’d call it a “phobia,” but the definition of phobias is that they’re wildly out of proportion to any actual danger … and these grotty little vampires do come with their own brand of danger.
It didn’t used to be this way. Once upon a time, I blithely refused to wear long pants once the mercury got past 80, figuring that ticks couldn’t be that much worse than mosquitoes … certainly not bad enough to deny my legs the life-saving breezes of summer. Then I came to work for NRA Publications.
We spend much more time in the field than editors in other disciplines, because we’re out testing the guns, ammunition and gear that we write about. That means we’re out there all summer putting ourselves on the tick smorgasbord, therefore, sooner or later we’ll find one buried carapace-deep in our flesh. (Shudder.)
The bite of a tick is painless, of course, but the repercussions may not be. The biggest name in tick-borne ailments is, of course, Lyme disease. Although it’s treatable, Lyme is one of those diseases that many doctors don’t immediately look for because most of its symptoms mirror those of other diseases. The hallmark Lyme symptom is that famous red bullseye rash—and here at the NRA, we jokingly call that our “Red Badge of Courage”—but the rash doesn’t always appear. (It can also manifest somewhere we’re unlikely to see it, like on our scalps.) For all of those reasons, Lyme sometimes goes untreated for far too long, and it can have serious health consequences. And yet, that’s not the part that has me gagging with revulsion every time I see a tick on me.
Nope, the thing that really has me leery is something called Alpha-GAL syndrome, and at last count two of my colleagues have it. With a name like “Alpha-GAL,” it seems like the sort of thing we may want, but it’s awful. Get this: People who contract Alpha-GAL syndrome from a tick bite become allergic to all red meat. Yes, including wild game. That allergy manifests in the form of terrible intestinal distress. Sufferers can go for years without a diagnosis, because the pain manifests several hours after eating red meat.
Ticks can, of course, carry other diseases besides Lyme and Alpha-GAL. There’s also Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, babesiosis, Tularemia and others. Interestingly, Lyme disease is almost never carried by Lone Star ticks. Instead, the Lone Star tick is the one most likely to transmit Alpha-GAL. (You can spot a Lone Star tick by the white or yellow “star” in the middle of its thorax.) Wood and deer ticks are more likely to pass on Lyme and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
The best way to avoid being bitten by a tick is to wear long pants, tucked into your shoes or boots if you can. Spraying your clothing with permethrin will definitely boost your safety there. But if, at the end of the day, you look down to see a tick shoulder-deep in your skin, our friends at American Hunter have a great way to remove it safely.