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Lyme Disease: Deer Tick

Summertime signals vacation time in the north country. During that time many of you will be getting it on with nature. For many of you folk it will be the only week or two this primal urge reaches your soul.

This is a reminder to be mindful that you may encounter dog and deer ticks while recreating out-of-doors. Don't panic. Read this article. Better yet, pack it and take it along.

The odds of you encountering a deer tick in the Lower Peninsula are slight. The odds increase in the Upper Peninsula as you travel east to west.

The Lyme Disease Triangle

In Michigan, there are three key players in the Lyme disease triangle: the deer tick, the white-footed deer mouse and the white-tail deer. The story starts in the spring. Hibernating female deer ticks, laden with eggs, start to become active when the weather warms. Eggs are deposited in the leaf litter on the ground. A short time later a deer tick larva hatches from the egg. A larva cannot carry the disease (i.e., it cannot be passed from infected adult female to egg to larva). Ticks are blood feeders. The new larva must find a mammal to feed on or it will die. The most likely candidates are other small mammals such as mice, squirrels, etc. If the mammal is carrying the bacterial disease it is passed on to the deer tick larva. The most common reservoir of the disease seems to be the white-footed mouse. Since larva cannot carry the disease, a human cannot get Lyme disease from the larval form. The type of bacteria that causes Lyme disease is a corkscrew-shaped bacteria called a "spirochete" (bacteria are classified by shape). The scientific name for the Lyme disease bacteria is Borrelia burgdorferi. After the larva has fed successfully, it drops off the mammal, molts and turns into the next growth stage called a nymph.

The deer tick will remain a nymph throughout the summer. Meanwhile, if it has been infected with Lyme disease, the bacteria will continue to multiply within the body of the host (carrier) deer tick nymph. The nymph will overwinter in the leaf litter until the following spring.

By spring the nymph has exhausted all of its energy supplies and requires another blood meal. An infected deer tick may transmit the disease to the mammal at this time! It is very important to note the word may. If the unsuspecting mammal is a human the infected deer tick must feed for at least 24 hours to transfer enough bacteria to cause an infection. This is very important to remember. Also, each nymph will feed only once. After it feeds, it molts and turns into the adult form. This usually occurs from mid to late summer.

The adult deer tick needs a blood meal in order to mate and manufacture eggs. The most likely host for deer tick adults in Michigan is the white-tailed deer. Humans are potential hosts, but adults are less likely to bite a human than is the nymph stage of the tick. Before the end of fall the adults have usually dropped from the deer host, mated and found a comfortable spot to take its winter nap. Only the female lives past the fall season.

Thus, the triangle is complete: deer tick white-footed mouse white-tailed deer


There are many species of ticks that occur in Michigan. The common dog tick, not the deer tick, is, by far, the most common in the state.

Adult ticks are difficult to identify, especially if you have never had the displeasure of removing one from your body. There is a great difference in size between adult dog and deer ticks if they are not engorged with blood. An engorged tick can be several times larger than one that has not fed.

Count the legs. Ticks are not insects. They are part of a closely related group that includes spiders and mites. They have eight legs, four on each side (insects have six legs, three on each side). If you are fairly certain the specimen is a tick check the coloring. If it has white markings, it is probably a common dog tick. Ticks that do not have white markings increase the chances that it may be a deer tick.

The larvae and nymphs will be next to impossible for you to identify correctly.

What To Do?

An infected deer tick must feed on a human for at least 24 hours before enough bacteria is transmitted to initiate Lyme disease infection.

Tick Removal

There is only one right way to remove a tick from your body. Do not grab it and pull it off. Squeezing an engorged tick will squirt all of its contents into you. Use tweezers to get under the mouthparts and pull straight up. Don't be overly concerned if you suspect part or all of the mouthparts are left in your skin. They pose no more danger than a tiny sliver left in the skin. After removal treat the bite area with an antiseptic.

Put the tick in a container with a tight seal containing alcohol. If you later exhibit the Lyme disease symptoms you will have the specimen in hand when you visit your physician.

Lyme Disease Symptoms

From two days to a few weeks after being bitten by a deer tick infected with Lyme disease, about two-thirds of infected people develop a rash at the site of the bite. The rash usually expands from a small red spot into a light red or slightly purplish circle or oval about 2 in. in diameter (it may be much larger). Sometimes the rash appears to be red on the perimeter and clear in the center. This is referred to as a "bull's-eye rash". Other early signals include flu-like symptoms.

Lyme disease can be difficult to diagnose. As you can imagine the symptoms can be mistaken for other ailments. However, there are blood tests available. The tests are not perfect. Tests that can accurately predict the early presence of the disease are being developed and should be available next year.

Early treatment is a relatively simple antibiotic regime.

Protect Yourself

The June, 1991 edition of American Health had several sound ideas about protecting yourself against being bitten by a deer tick (or any other tick for that matter) when recreating in areas where ticks may be abundant . The following has been condensed from that article.


  • Don't walk outside barefoot or in open sandals. In tick-infested areas, even manicured lawns can harbor ticks.


  • Be especially vigilant when walking in tall grass or the woods. To keep ticks on the outside of your clothes, wear a hat, a long-sleeved shirt and long pants. Cinching pants at the ankle offers extra protection. Feet, ankles and legs are the ticks favorite avenues of invasion.


  • Wear light-colored clothing so that the dark ticks are easier to see.


  • Use a tick or insect repellent. Most repellents contain the chemical N-diethy-methatoluamide (DEET). While DEET products can be used on skin and clothing, those with DEET concentrations above 50% should be use only on clothing. Not only is that a method safer, but the products last longer and work better. The most important areas are shoe tops, socks and pant cuffs.


  • Also available in Michigan is permethrin. It is marketed under the name Coulston's Permethrin Tick Repellent or Permanone. This product will kill ticks, as well as repel them. Do not use this product on your skin. It will be directly absorbed into your bloodstream.


  • Check yourself for ticks while outside, and brush off any you find on clothing. Once you are back home, do a thorough skin and scalp check.


  • If you have children, conduct bedtime tick checks from about mid-April through September.


  • If your pets go outside, put tick collars on them and check them for ticks. A Lyme disease vaccine became available for dogs in 1990.


  • If you find a tick on the skin, remove them in the manner previously described.