Everything you never wanted to know about how ticks hunt you (and how to avoid them)

A female tick lurks, waiting for her next host.

You're probably already a little afraid of ticks. Sure, there are plenty of more existentially upsetting creatures dwelling deep in the ocean or lurking in dank caves. But you're unlikely to have to actually deal with any of them, and you're certainly not going to run into a deep sea nightmare monster while you're just strolling around minding your own business. Ticks, on the other hand, are everywhere.

Ticks carry over a dozen diseases, literally inflate with blood, drill tiny holes in your skin, and oh, did we mention that actually actively hunt for you? So there's that.

You probably thought that ticks were just kind of...there. Maybe they sometimes fall and land on your body, or you happen to brush by them on a tree. You assumed that the natural world didn't have it out for you. You were naïve, you sweet summer child, and you were so very wrong. Ticks may be essentially blind, but they're not just idly waiting in the woods hoping to accidentally drink your blood. The moment you enter their territory, you become their prey. Ticks are obligate parasites—they can't survive long without your blood—and that's a powerful motivator to find a warm body to feed off.

Even up against a tiny, sightless foe, you don't stand much of a chance. They've been around since the Cretaceous period about 145 million years ago, and they have perfected their approach. Prevention only works to a limited extent. But at least in the aftermath of the Great Tick War, you and your opposable thumbs have the upper hand.

Ticks aren't there by accident

It's true that you often get exposed to ticks by brushing up against them. But it's not like they're just hanging out on a leaf enjoying a sunny day when you happen to walk by. They're lying in wait.

At the end of a tick's front legs sits a tiny structure called Haller's organ. This little sensory pit detects chemicals and odors in the air. And while you can wear all the mosquito repellent and deodorant that you want, you can't hide the one signature scent that ticks use to hunt you: your breath.

With every exhalation, you release carbon dioxide into the air—and boy does that sweet CO2 get ticks going. Some of them will literally run towards the scent of a potential host. And yeah, ticks can't run very fast on a human scale, but the mental image of a little arthropod racing towards you on its clicking-clattering legs is still somehow upsetting. They can also pick up other scents like ammonia, so peeing in the woods only makes things worse. As soon as they smell you, they're comin' for you.

Researchers actually use this to their advantage when they want to catch the little buggers. One entomologist told Radiolab, in one of the best quotes of all time, that "we often collect ticks by putting out blocks of dry ice on a white sheet. Come back in an hour or two, ticks are all gathered around the block waving their little front legs. Kind of like worshipping a deity." It would be funnier if it wasn't so alarming.

That arm-waving behavior is called questing. The most any tick species can actually see is vague shapes, so they can't exactly run and jump at you. But they can position themselves on leaves and branches, extend their prickly legs out, and wait for you to walk by. And when you brush against them, they board the Human Train headed straight for Bloodtown.

RELATED: How to avoid tick bites

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How to avoid tick bites
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How to avoid tick bites

1. Stay in the middle of the path

When hiking, make sure to stay in the middle of the path. Weeds, grass and trees make it easier for ticks to crawl onto you. Don't venture out to the grass or bushes, where ticks are formidable to be hiding. 

2. Wear long pants and closed toed shoes

Protect your skin. Adding an extra layer makes it more difficult to latch on to you. It's smart to wear pants, long sleeves and hats, especially in the summer.

3. Invest in deer-resistant plants. 

Since ticks feed on and are transported by deer, try looking into deer-resistant plants. French marigolds, rosemary, mint and crape myrtle are just some of the greens deer tend to "overlook". 

See a complete list of the herbs and flowers here

4. Check your dog! 

Dogs can literally bring ticks right to your front door. Prevent ticks by keeping their coats short in the summer. Use your hands to check the fur, stopping if you feel a pea-sized bump. Favorite spots ticks like to hide include the ears, toes and under the tail. 

Dog ticks don't "harbor diseases that sicken people", but you should still be wary. 

5. Yes, repellant can help. 

According to TickenEncounter, spray with DEET does not provide "sufficient" protection. Get spray for your clothes like Permethrin, which instantly kills ticks. 

6. Dry your clothes 

The CDC recommends tumble drying clothes immediately for ten minutes after you've been outside. Ticks can easily "dry out" with high heat, but you should make sure the clothes are completely dry. 

Warning: Ticks can survive the wash. 

7. Tuck your pants into your socks.

This covers the small, easily accessible space in between your pants and ankles. Especially if you are sitting, it makes it easier for ticks to latch on. 

8. Stay in the sun.

Since ticks survive in shady, humid environments, researchers agree that staying in the sun lowers the risk for ticks. According to LiveScience, ticks "can't survive" in places with lower than 80% humidity. 

9. Invest in Permethrin socks

The chemical is successful in protecting against ticks, mosquitoes and other types of bites. Lymedisease.org estimates that permethrin-treated footwear offered 74 times the protection from bites.

10. Mow your lawn

Cut your grass, clean your yard, get rid of any extra firewood or wood chips. 

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Once they're on you, you're not likely to notice them

Some tick species will latch on wherever they've landed. Others will roam around your body looking for skin better suited to their needs. They're especially fond of the area around your ears, where your epidermis is thin and easy to puncture. This is why you often find ticks on your dog's head—it's their favorite easy access point.

You're probably not going to see or feel those teensy-weensy bodies crawling up your arm. But you can make the task a little easier by wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants while outside, preferably in light colors, so any critters on their way to turn your head into an all-you-can-eat buffet stand out. Ticks are usually a dark-ish brown color, so they'll pop more against a light khaki. And a hat will help protect your scalp, where it's especially easy to lose a tick in your hair.

If a tick manages to attach itself to your skin, you won't notice—they inject you with anesthetic first. You'll remain blissfully unaware as they use their little mouths to drill into you and insert their hypostome, which is basically a tiny harpoon-straw they use to suck blood out of you.

RELATED: How to avoid mosquito bites

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9 Foods That Make You Tastier to Mosquitoes
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9 Foods That Make You Tastier to Mosquitoes

Learn which 9 foods make you more appetizing to mosquitos!

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Beer

What’s a cookout without a cold one (or two)? There’s always a cooler full to the brim with ice-cold beers at backyard barbeques. A few Heinekens can give you a buzz, but even a single beer can make you a target for mosquitos. Scientists are not exactly sure why mosquitos go for beer drinkers, but they don’t think it has anything to do with the increase in ethanol in the bloodstream or the heightened body temperature caused by beer consumption. Like us humans, mosquitos may just like the taste of a good brew.

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Potassium-rich foods

Bloodsucking mosquitos are extremely attracted to lactic acid. Too bad lactic acid is constantly naturally released by our bodies, making us prime snacks. Eating potassium-rich foods, however, increases the amount of lactic acid you give off through your skin. Bananas, potatoes, prunes, raisins, lima beans, avocados, and spinach are full of potassium, so snacking on these makes you even tastier to the invasive insects. Well, there goes guacamole!

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Salty Snacks

Wiping salty potato chip crumbs on bright beach towels or on denim cutoffs while enjoying the sun is a typical summertime occurrence. Little did you know, eating a high-sodium diet also increases the amount of lactic acid you produce, and more lactic acid means more mosquito bites. Filling up on salty snacks like crispy chips, hot curly fries, roasted peanuts, or even that bacon on your burger, will make you that much more delicious to mosquitos.

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Sweets

Often picnic tables are piled high with tart cherry pies, melty ice cream cakes and sugary candies to celebrate summer. As much as we love these tasty desserts and sweet things, they have a saccharine aroma that is very attractive to most animals, mosquitos included. Not only will the sweets attract sweet–toothed friends and family, they will also act as magnets for bugs and mosquitos.

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Alcohol

A refreshing cocktail or mixed drink will definitely cool you down at an outdoor gathering, but scientists think those who drink alcohol are more likely to attract mosquitos. Not only are they sweet-smelling beverages, the alcohol increases your body temperature, which makes you a target for the little blood-suckers because they are drawn to people with warmer blood. A frozen daiquiri or white sangria sounds super good — until a pesky mosquito bites you.

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High Cholesterol

High cholesterol is not only a health hazard, but having a higher level of cholesterol in your blood increases your appeal to mosquitos. It is always important to lower your bad cholesterol if it is too high and recommended by your doctor. Eating more fruits and veggies, and opting for lean meats can help to lower cholesterol levels. Just think of it as killing two birds with one stone.

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Limburger Cheese

Chomping on Limburger cheese will transform you into a gigantic neon “Eat Me” sign for mosquitos. This variety of cheese is made with the same bacteria that cause feet to stink. This is a super bonus for mosquitos because they love smelly feet. Well that stinks!

Image Credit: Flickr/Jason Rossiter

Pickled Vegetables

Picture a perfectly charred hot dog crowned with a heavy dose of tangy sauerkraut, tasty ketchup, and sweet pickle relish. But that sauerkraut and pickle relish can be your downfall. Pickled veggies contain lactic acid, therefore they attract those dreaded mosquitos. Kimchi is another condiment that makes human blood a little sweeter to mosquitos. Maybe a bare hot dog doesn’t taste as bad as itchy bites feel.

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Dairy Products

So many delectable summer favorites, like sweet strawberry ice cream, coconut froyo, delicious Redi-Whip, and layered parfaits, are dairy-based. Unfortunately, these desserts and other dairy goods cause the body to produce lactic acid, which reels in the mosquitos. Guess that means we’ll have eat our ice cream inside to avoid those biting bugs.

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Ticks are everywhere

Not a single place in the continental U.S. is safe from ticks' tiny jaws. The brown dog tick lives in every state, and the other half dozen species have overlapping territories all over. The southeast and mid-Atlantic are the epicenters of the tick world, however. They have the warm, humid climates that help the little arachnids thrive.

Some species prefer woods. Others like tall grasses or shrubs. Still more prefer the dark, damp environs of a cave. The point is: they're all over the place. And they can spread easily, because they hitch rides on much larger creatures. Increasing deer and human populations have helped them expand their territory already, and the warming climate means they're able to thrive in more and more places.

A single bite can carry multiple disease risks

Each tick species tends to carry certain bloodborne illnesses, but they don't just limit themselves to one. A tick can harbor multiple bacteria and viruses. Here's a small sampling of the ailments you can catch and some of the symptoms you'll be treated to:

Tularemia: fever, painful lymph nodes, possibly life-threatening pneumonia.

Powassan virus: inflammation of the brain and membranes surrounding the central nervous system, fever, headache, vomiting, seizures.

Lyme disease: rash, headache, heart palpitations, severe joint pain, facial palsy (loss of muscle control on one side), inflammation of the brain and spinal cord.

Ehrlichiosis: fever, muscle pain, vomiting, confusion, headache.

Rocky Mountain spotted fever: rash, fever, vomiting, abdominal pain.

And that's not to mention alpha-gal syndrome, which results in a lifelong allergy to red meat.

What to do if you find a tick

If you find a tick, the first step is always to panic slightly at how gross they are. Step two is to frantically look around for something to GET IT OFF GET IT OFF RIGHT NOW. The best tool in this case is forceps, which are kind of like tweezers with a locking mechanism—they stay tightly clenched once you pinch the tick. If you don't have forceps, go for a good set of tweezers. You want to grip the tick firmly, as close as you can to your skin. You're trying to remove a tiny mouthpiece that's currently embedded in your body, after all.

Hopefully, the tick is still pretty small. The bigger it is, the longer it's been feeding and the greater the chances that it's already transmitted a disease to you. Either way, you shouldn't squeeze the blood-thirsty bug. The best case scenario is popping it into a little blood explosion, which is harmless but thoroughly gross, and if you're unlucky you might actually end up squirting the blood back into your body.

So grip that tick by the head and pull firmly. It will probably hurt. If it doesn't hurt, you've likely done it wrong: go back and try to get the little mouthpiece out, because it's probably still in there. If you can't, don't worry too much about it—just leave it alone and let your skin heal over.

Now comes the real fun. Tickborne diseases can take weeks to show symptoms, so be vigilant and look for any rashes on your body. If you have any unusual symptoms, even if you think you're just coming down with a summer cold, go to the doctor. This is not the time to suffer heroically in silence. This is the time to take advantage of all modern medicine has to offer.

RELATED: Plants mosquitoes hate

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Plants that keep mosquitoes away
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Plants that keep mosquitoes away

Lemon Balm

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Catnip

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Peppermint

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Basil

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Sage and Rosemary

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Lavender

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Marigold

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Scented Geranium

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Citronella

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