Wear light colored clothing, long sleeves and pants, and tuck your pants into socks. Long loose hair should be covered, braided or tied when venturing into areas where they are apt to be. Spray your clothing with the appropriate repellant.
When coming in from outside activities where you might have encountered them, throw clothing into the dryer set on high heat. This will ensure none will survive. Remember to do a thorough check, take a shower, and wash your hair.
My mother has always repeated these lines in some fashion after every summer afternoon outside. “If ticks get in your hair,” she said, “we’ll never see them again” (The joke here is that my hair is impossibly thick). We live in a heavily forested area, and it was fairly common for me to pick up a few ticks while doing work in the yard.
Ticks are a fact of life in Alabama. Brown ticks, American dog ticks, Deer ticks, Lone Star ticks – all four thrive in our region, and are carriers of a host of diseases: Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted disease, Tularemia, Ehrlichiosis, Relapsing fever, Colorado tick fever, and Babesiosis.
But they’ve never really been a problem for me. I follow protocol.
The problem came this past August. My friend Jess and I were on a walk through the woods on my family’s homestead when we ran into a spiderweb and halted to free ourselves. There’s nothing worse than a web in your face and a spider in your hair, right?
While frantically raking my fingers through my hair I glanced down and, for a moment, thought I must have stepped in something. My foot was covered, coated with a rust-colored substance that slowly began to spread up my bare leg. I thought I had stepped on a spider’s egg sac. There’s nothing worse than being covered with hundreds of baby spiders, right?
I screamed and ran for the house like a bat out of hell, leaving Jess to discover on her own what terror was creeping up her legs. Once I was clear of the tree-line I stopped and brushed madly at my legs. That’s when my nightmare turned to abject horror: spiders squish. It’s possibly the only redeemable fact about them – you squish them and they die. The swarm on my calves – now my thighs – weren’t squishing. They weren’t even fazed by my manic clawing. They clung effortlessly to anything they touched, my hands now included.
I looked closer and realized it wasn’t a spider’s egg sac I’d stepped on. It was a tick’s. Hundreds of baby ticks – seed ticks –, each smaller than the head of a pin, were on my every exposed surface – my feet, legs, arms, hands… neck… Oh, God. My hair, I thought. My skin was crawling – literally. It was my worst nightmare realized.
It seemed Jess had come to the same realization around the same time as I had. We tried the hose futilely before rushing home in a panic to shower. That should have been the end of it.
We sat quietly in my living room after our baths, the only sound being our clothes tumbling in the dryer. “Mary,” she said, breaking the silence, “I think they’re still on me.” With renewed terror we checked ourselves again to find that some of the ticks had survived the shower too. We needed something more powerful. I was ready to bathe in bleach.
Jess, gratefully, has always been my voice of reason, and suggested a less painful choice of action, and that’s ultimately the story of how we ended up in the Publix checkout line with a lice shampoo, lice spray, a bottle of wine, and two pints of ice cream, with the cashier ringing us up studying us with obvious concern. We stood in my living room, our hair and skin saturated with shampoo as we sprayed our clothes and my furniture with lice spray. We managed to kill them all this time, but the damage had been done.
The next day I was covered in tiny welts, and the itching was worse than chicken pox and lasted for almost two weeks. I picked furiously at every freckle that I was sure hadn’t been there before. The nights were the worst; every tingle or itch would lead me to switch on the lights to examine myself and my bed in full. The experience was fuel for nightmares.
After that I did my research and discovered exactly what I’d been dealing with: seed ticks, ticks that were in the larval stage of development. They apparently sit in masses of hundreds, if not thousands, in grass, or maybe in some alternate tick dimension where they phase into existence as a victim passes. They latch on and swarm up limbs at nearly supersonic speeds and, by the time you notice them, it’s already too late. Even if you don’t feel it, they’re biting you with their tiny, diabolical fangs, pincers, or whatever it is they bite with.
What I realized then was that nobody really has any advice for handling seed ticks. Adhering to the rules will only protect you from the adults – the ones you can easily see and pinch off – they’ll do you no good when you’re faced with hundreds of seed ticks. They’re small. They’re durable. They’re impossible to see in the grass, and you won’t notice them until they’re already on you. The best you can hope for is that the lice shampoo does its job, your dryer has a high enough heat setting, and that the bites aren’t in places inappropriate to scratch in public, because you will scratch. And people will notice. And it will be awkward.
There are plenty of things to fear in the Alabama wilderness: snakes on your path, hornets or bees in an eave, alligators in the river, coyotes, bobcats, and even the occasional bear. I can add to that list stepping into a nest of ticks. As far as flora and fauna is concerned, I cannot think of a worse experience and I challenge you, readers, to do the same and let me know in the comments.