The buzz

New citizen science program: The tick's in the mail

Tick on a blade of grass
(Photo via Shutterstock)

Tick season is underway, and you can help researchers in Illinois learn more about the tick population across the state in a simple — and surprising — way.

Dr. Holly Tuten, a vector ecologist at the University of Illinois, is asking people across Illinois to mail in any loose ticks that have not been attached to a person or pet so they can be used for research. For attached ticks, Tuten recommends people consult their doctor or veterinarian.

The process for mailing in loose ticks is simple:

  1. Drop the tick in a plastic bag with a handful of fresh grass or leaves. Securely seal the bag with duct or packing tape. (The fresh plant material and tape keeps the tick in good condition.)
  2.  Wrap the bag in a paper towel to prevent crushing.
  3.  Place the wrapped bag in a regular envelope.
  4.  Add a paper to the envelope with the following information: 
    • Name and contact information (email and/or phone number)
    • Where (address or city) and when (date) you found the tick
    • Who the tick was on (you, your child or your pet) and if it was loose or attached
    • Where you think you picked up the tick (your yard, a forest preserve, a park)
    • Any other information you want Tuten know (All information remains confidential.)
  5. Seal the envelope and place a single stamp on it
  6. Send via regular mail to: Dr. Holly Tuten, INHS Medical Entomology Lab, 1902 Griffith Drive, Champaign, IL 61820.

The mail-in program was developed to provide a wide sample of ticks from across the state that were encountered in various ways, not just by those who regularly encounter ticks from their work outdoors but also people who encounter them recreationally, whether taking a hike or walking the dog, for example.

Tuten worked with a woman who serves as the director of a Lyme disease support group to develop a simple and effective way for mailing the ticks. 

“This gets us the ticks in good condition,” Tuten said of the mailing procedures. “Anyone can do it, and it only takes a stamp.”

The ticks received via mail are used for several purposes, Tuten said. They're able to extract DNA from the ticks, which can then be safely stored for use for years to come, and they can also do pathogen testing. In addition, the tick specimens are helpful in looking at population genetics, which is the relatedness of ticks from around the state, including where different populations are and how they are tied to one another.

Population genetics can be used to examine how host animals affect tick movement. For example, migratory birds and deer aid in the movement of ticks, and their movements, such as along rivers or migratory flyways, may serve as highways for tick movement, Tuten said. 

“Population genetics will help us get to the heart of that,” she said, adding that understanding tick movement may help lead to new control interventions. 

Beyond this more in-depth information they can gather from the ticks they receive via mail, just the basics — where and when the tick was found — is beneficial because it provides information about where particular tick species are located within the state.

“That basic level of information is still very useful,” she said.

Tuten said one of the more surprising results of the mail-in tick program so far has been the heartfelt letters she has received from across the state, letting her know all the required information but also much more. 

“It has really been a delightful experience, because people are writing these lovely letters full of insight and anecdotal information,” she said.

Reading these letters, Tuten has learned about people's concerns and fears about ticks. Sometimes, she has even been able to provide some reassurance. For example, someone may write that they are concerned a tick they encountered may result in Lyme disease, but she's able to quickly identify the tick and determine it's not one that carries the bacteria that causes the disease. 

“There are times I just pick up the phone and call them,” she said, adding it offers her an opportunity to share her passion and expertise with people.  

Tuten, herself, always follows proper precautions when she'll be spending time outdoors in tick habitats. 

“I’m kind of in constant tick-check mode,” she said. 

Tuten advises following the guidelines set forth by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for up-to-date recommendations regarding tick safety and use of repellents and insecticides. Her personal protocol is wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts treated with permethrin, an substance that is poisonous to ticks. She also tucks her pants into her socks and sprays her shoes or boots with permethrin. In addition, she uses a tick repellent. 

Before going indoors after time spent outside, she does regular tick checks, starting at the feet and moving upward. She said she starts at her feet and moves up because most ticks encountered outdoors will be at thigh level or below. It's helpful if you can have someone else check places that are difficult to see and reach, such as your back. 

Showering after coming in from outdoors is also helpful, because there’s evidence that showering within a few hours of being outside reduces the likelihood of a tick bite, she said. And she also recommends placing the clothing you wore outdoors in a dryer and running it on high heat for 20 minutes to kill any ticks.

If you do find a tick that's already attached to you, Tuten urged following the proper steps for safely removing it. 

“The really big caution is to not disturb a tick if it’s attached to you,” she said. “You don’t pinch it, you don’t twist it, you don’t burn it, you don’t fiddle with it.”

Instead, the best way to remove a tick is to use tweezers. Grasp it as close to the skin as possible, to the point where you are almost pinching yourself, she said. Once it's firmly grasped, pull it straight out with slow, steady pressure. 

She said it's important to grab the tick as close to the skin as possible, near its mouth parts, so it does't regurgitate into you. If the tick does regurgitate, it increases the likelihood it will introduce a pathogen.

Once it's removed, dispose of it by putting it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed container, wrapping it in tape or flushing it down the toilet, the CDC advises. Make sure to thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with soap and water or alcohol.

Tuten serves as an ambassador for the Global Lyme Alliance, and as part of her role leads informational sessions to inform groups about the risk of ticks and Lyme disease. She said she's diligent about doing tick checks on her and her family and encourages others to be as well. And those tick checks need to be thorough, not just a casual glance. 

“Ticks like to hide where the sun don’t shine,” she said.

For more information about ticks or tick-borne illnesses, consult the CDC's website or your physician.

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