11 Myths About Ticks, Debunked

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iStock

It's officially summer, which means tick season is in full swing. Like other creepy crawlies that feed on our blood and spread disease, ticks can cause a lot of anxiety, which has led to plenty of misinformation regarding how dangerous they are, how they find prey, and the best ways to get rid of them. Before venturing outdoors, read up on the most common myths about ticks.

1. THE MYTH: BURNING THEM WORKS BETTER THAN TWEEZERS.

Person using tweezers to remove a tick from a dog's ear.
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After spotting a tick latched to their body, some people make the problem worse by grabbing a lighter. According to the myth, burning a tick off your skin is the most efficient way to remove it, but Kirby C. Stafford, the chief entomologist at the Connecticut Department of Entomology, says this thinking is misguided. "Imagine trying to burn something the size of a sesame seed or poppy seed or smaller attached closely to your skin," he tells Mental Floss. In addition to being potentially painful and dangerous, this method also puts you at a higher risk of infection. According to a paper from 1996, people who had dealt with ticks using non-tweezer methods were more likely to contract a tickborne disease. People who removed them by pinching them with tweezers close to their skin and lifting them off, as Stafford recommends, were less likely to get sick.

2. THE MYTH: SWABBING THEM WITH SOAP IS AN EFFECTIVE REMOVAL METHOD.

Two ticks on a white dog.
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If you're squeamish about plucking off a tick with tweezers, smothering it with a cotton ball soaked with liquid soap, nail polish remover, or rubbing alcohol may sound like a tempting alternative. But this is another bogus method experts recommend you avoid. Creating an inhospitable environment for the tick in the hopes of it detaching on its own takes more time than removing it with tweezers, and that creates more opportunities for pathogens to enter your bloodstream. Only swab with rubbing alcohol after the tick has been removed—it's a good way to kill lingering microbes.

3. THE MYTH: YOU CAN FEEL A TICK BITE WHEN IT HAPPENS.

Tick feeding on blood.
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Don't count on a tick alerting you to its presence when it digs in to feed—most tick bites are painless, so unless you're looking for it, a tick can go undetected on your body for days or however long it takes to get its fill. So instead of assuming you'll feel the tick if it's there, make a habit of scanning your clothes and body whenever you come in from the outdoors, using a hand mirror to check the spots you can't see.

4. THE MYTH: TICKS ARE ONLY A PROBLEM WHEN YOU'RE HIKING OR CAMPING.

Tick warning sign posted on a tree.
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People tend to worry about ticks when they're on a weekend camping trip or a long hike through the woods—not so much when they're safe at home on their own property. But according to Stafford, most people pick up deer ticks close to their houses. Even if you don't live in a heavily wooded area, certain spots of your yard may be harboring them. "They can be found in groundcover, mixed unkempt grassy vegetation, and similar areas," he says, "even on a trip to the mailbox on the street or by the garden hose next to the front porch."

5. THE MYTH: TICKS ARE EASY TO SPOT.

A tick hiding under human hair.
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Many people have only seen a tick after it has been feeding on their blood for days. This doesn't paint an accurate picture of what the arachnid looks like most of the time: When they’re engorged, female deer ticks are two to three times their normal body size and darker than usual. In order to catch a tick before it has a chance to make a meal of you, you need to look for a reddish-brown speck that's roughly 3 to 5 millimeters long, or the size of a sesame seed, while nymphal ticks—which are responsible for the majority of infections—are the size of a poppy seed.

6. THE MYTH: TICKS DISAPPEAR IN THE WINTER.

Engorged deer tick.
iStock

You're most likely to encounter ticks during the warmer months, but that doesn't mean you should let your guard down completely come winter. While adult ticks are dormant for most of the season, they can be active as long as the weather is warmer than 40°F—and with climate change raising temperatures year-round, unseasonably warm winter days are more likely than ever. According to the Centers for Disease Control, illnesses spread by ticks more than doubled between 2004 and 2016, and experts pin part of the blame on the weather.

7. THE MYTH: ONLY DEER TICKS ARE DANGEROUS.

Close-up of a deer tick.
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Deer ticks are notorious for transmitting Lyme Disease, an illness that can cause serious symptoms, especially if it's not caught early. While deer ticks and the related western blacklegged tick are the only tick species in America known to spread Lyme, the American dog tick of the eastern half of the U.S. is a common carrier of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which can be life-threatening when not treated with antibiotics. The lone star tick, which is native to the southern and eastern U.S., made news last year for producing a spontaneous allergy to red meat in some of its victims.

8. THE MYTH: TICKS JUMP FROM TREES.

Three ticks crawling on a branch.
iStock

Ticks are bad enough without having to worry about them raining down on you every time you walk under a tree. Fortunately, these kamikaze-style attacks are just a myth. Ticks can't fly or jump, and they much prefer hanging out near the ground where they can attach to the legs of passing mammals to lurking in tree branches far from their prey. But that doesn't mean your scalp is safe. As Stafford says, "Most are picked up on the legs and they can crawl up amazingly quickly." He says a deer tick is capable of scaling a leg in a few minutes or less.

9. THE MYTH: A TICK HEAD IS STILL DANGEROUS AFTER YOU REMOVE THE BODY.

Tick bite next to a freckle.
iStock

Ideally when you pull off a tick with tweezers you should remove the whole thing—not just the body without its head. But if you aren't 100 percent sure you got the full tick off on the first try, don't panic. A disembodied head or biting apparatus attached to your skin won't be able to transmit disease, move on its own, or grow back into a full tick. It might irritate the skin around it, but usually it will fall out on its own.

10. THE MYTH: TICKS CAN SMELL BLOOD.

Tick held up by tweezers.
iStock

Ticks have a keen sense of smell they use to hunt their prey, but it isn't blood they're searching for. They've evolved to sense carbon dioxide, a.k.a. the gas you emit every time you exhale. When a tick detects CO2, it might (depending on the species) react by dashing toward its potential host—and unless you can hold your breath whenever you're outside, there's not much you can do to hide from them.

11. THE MYTH: LYME DISEASE ALWAYS COMES WITH A BULLSEYE RASH.

A bullseye rash from a tick bite.
iStock

If it’s been several days since you were bitten by a tick and there’s still no sign of the telltale bullseye rash at the bite site, you may assume you’re in the clear. But according to the National Center for Health Research, fewer than 50 percent of all Lyme infections produce this symptom. A more accurate way to check if you have the disease is to look for several early symptoms instead of just one—these might include muscle weakness in the face, lightheadedness and shortness of breath, fever, and joint pain. These signs usually appear within a month following a tick bite if you’ve been infected.

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6 Amazing Facts About Sally Ride

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are six things you might not know about the groundbreaking astronaut, who was born on May 26, 1951.

1. Sally Ride proved there is such thing as a stupid question.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. Had she taken Billie Jean King's advice, Sally Ride might have been a professional tennis player.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. Home economics was not Sally Ride's best subject.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. Sally Ride had a strong tie to the Challenger.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. Sally Ride had no interest in cashing in on her worldwide fame.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

6. Sally Ride was the first openly LGBTQ astronaut.

Ride passed away on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61, following a long (and very private) battle with pancreatic cancer. While Ride's brief marriage to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley was widely known to the public (they were married from 1982 to 1987), it wasn't until her death that Ride's longtime relationship with Tam O'Shaughnessy—a childhood friend and science writer—was made public. Which meant that even in death, Ride was still changing the world, as she is the world's first openly LGBTQ astronaut.