9 Types of Ticks to Watch Out for This Year—and Which Ones Can Cause You the Most Harm
With a rise in tick-borne diseases, it is important to be able to identify ticks and the pathogens they could spread to you, your family, or your pets.
Finding a tick stuck on us or our pet is alarming since the tick could be carrying the pathogens that cause illnesses such as Lyme disease, Colorado tick fever, Powassan virus, or Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Many people think ticks are bugs, but they are actually arachnids and have eight legs like a spider. Their main purpose is to latch onto warm-blooded animals, including humans, to feed on the blood. While most are black or brown, if you spot a white tick or green tick, that temporary color stems from the tick being engorged with blood.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tick-borne diseases are increasing due to factors like development, reforestation, and climate change. Each year, about half a million Americans are diagnosed and treated for a disease contracted from a tick bite. Some of these illnesses are untreatable and others can even be deadly. That is why it is critical to protect yourself from ticks and identify different types of ticks and the diseases they can carry.
Tick Life Cycle
Most types of ticks typically live for about 2 or 3 years. During this time, they go through four stages. Understanding the different stages of a tick life cycle is helpful when trying to identify ticks and get rid of them.
- Egg: Female ticks lay thousands of eggs at the end of their lives. This usually happens in the spring in leaf litter or other warm and soft areas outside, but not on the hosts.
- Larva: About 2 weeks to 2 months after the female tick lays eggs, they begin to hatch, usually in the summer. Six-legged organisms called larvae appear and begin to attach to small hosts such as mice, raccoons, and squirrels. During this blood meal feeding time, larvae can contract bacteria, viruses, or parasites that cause disease. They will remain contagious for the rest of their lives, potentially spreading germs to people and other animals.
- Nymph: After the larva feeds, it drops off the host and moves into the nymph stage, which usually happens between the fall and spring. Nymphs have eight legs and alter their behavior depending on the weather. They are typically more active and likely to bite hosts during warmer weather, but some ticks can also be active in the cold. During this stage, they can contract and transmit diseases. They feed for 4 or 5 days before starting their final stage of life.
- Adult: Ticks usually reach the adult stage in the fall. They will search for their third and final host during this stage, usually a larger animal or human. They mate, feed, and transmit disease as an adult. Male ticks remain on the host until done feeding, and then fall off and die. Female ticks die right after laying eggs. This stage typically lasts about 2 years.
There are more than 90 species of ticks in the United States, and some of them look like other types of bugs. Keep reading to learn how to get good at tick identification to stay safe and discover how best to get rid of them.
1. Black-legged “Deer” Tick (Ixodes scapularis)
Location: Eastern U.S. from Maine to Florida, expanding westward
Illnesses: Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, tick-borne relapsing fever, ehrlichiosis, babesiosis, and Powassan virus
A deer tick, also known as a black-legged tick, is the most feared tick since it can carry a number of diseases. Deer ticks are typically found in the woods and grassy areas. Immature ticks can be as small as a poppy seed, and adults grow to about ⅛ inch long. They are easy to identify by their dark black legs, a red-orange body, and a hard-plated black scutum on the upper part of the shield. While they target white-tailed deer (hence their name), they also cling onto people, bringing the risk of passing along Lyme disease or other illnesses.
2. Gulf Coast Tick (Amblyomma maculatum)
Location: Along the coasts of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, and as far inland as Oklahoma and Texas
Illnesses: Spotted fever
As its name implies, this tick is often seen along the Gulf Coast, but it can be found in other locations as well. It is most active from late summer to early fall. This brown tick has a pecan-colored body, silvery white lines on its shield, and legs that have a lighter shade. It prefers host animals like deer, rodents, and birds, but it also bites people and can potentially pass along Rickettsia parkeri, the bacteria that cause a form of spotted fever that is milder than Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Look for signs of infection 2 to 10 days after being bitten. The bite will appear as a pimple and could cause a headache, fever, and rash that can be treated with an antibiotic.
3. American Dog Tick (Dermacentor variabilis)
Location: East of the Rocky Mountains and along parts of the Pacific coast
Illnesses: Tularemia and Rocky Mountain spotted fever
Also referred to as the wood tick, the American dog tick feeds on dogs, people, and other animals, spreading serious disease. The female is more likely to bite people. The ticks can spread a bacterial disease called tularemia that can cause tick paralysis, which results in a loss of muscle function. Rocky Mountain spotted fever can also be contracted, leading to possible headache, fever, body aches, swelling around the eyes or the backs of the hands, nausea, vomiting, and a spotty rash. If left untreated, it can be fatal.
People are most at risk during spring and summer seasons. Look for a dark reddish-brown body about ½ inch long. Adult females have an off-white section on their shield, and males have gray speckles.
4. Brown Dog Tick (Rhipicephalus sanguineus)
Location: Found worldwide
Illnesses: Rocky Mountain spotted fever in the Southwestern U.S. and along the U.S.-Mexico border. For dogs: canine ehrlichiosis and bartonellosis (bacterial infections) and babesiosis (a parasitic infection of the blood)
As one of the main types of ticks on dogs, the brown dog tick prefers dogs as a host, but it is still possible for people to get bitten by one. Since this type of tick can be found everywhere in the world, it is important to be able to recognize one. The body is reddish-brown in color and narrower in shape than different ticks. When comparing a deer tick vs. a dog tick, the adult brown dog tick is about the same size and color as a deer tick.
Brown dog ticks can make their way into a dog’s bed or kennel, so know how to get rid of ticks in the house and defend your outdoor spaces with the best tick repellent available. If a dog gets bitten, it can be extremely dangerous, causing canine ehrlichiosis and bartonellosis (bacterial infections) and babesiosis (a parasite infection of the blood). Symptoms to watch out for in dogs include fever, depression, weight loss, and lameness.
5. Lone Star Tick (Amblyomma americanum)
Location: Widely found in Eastern, Southeastern, and South Central states
Illnesses: Bourbon virus, human ehrlichiosis, Heartland virus, tularemia, and southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI). Bites also might trigger alpha-gal syndrome (red meat allergy).
Named for the state of Texas, one of their prevalent areas, lone star ticks are tan or brown and ⅓ inch long. Females have a white spot on their backs, and males have scattered spots or lines on their bodies. Most active from early spring to late fall, this aggressive tick is particularly unique in that it can cause an allergic reaction in people who eat red meat after being bitten. It can also spread tularemia, which causes a skin rash or ulcer, high fever, and swollen lymph nodes. The infection can be treated with antibiotics, but if left untreated, it can be fatal.
Bites can also cause STARI, which includes a bull’s eye rash at the bite site, fever, body aches, and fatigue. Finally, lone star ticks can infect people with the untreatable Heartland virus. This rare virus triggers a fever, headache, and low platelet and white blood cell counts.
6. Western Blacklegged Tick (Ixodes pacificus)
Location: Along the Pacific coast of the U.S. and British Columbia
Illnesses: Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis, babesiosis, and the Powassan virus
Spotted in the Western part of the country, these ticks have a reddish body and black legs. The younger ones focus on small rodents, birds, and lizards. Later on, as adults, they feast on deer, pets, large mammals, and humans. Although it is rare that they will infect people, it is still a good idea to stay away from this red tick and watch out for them in forests and grassy areas all year long.
7. Groundhog Tick (Ixodes cookei)
Location: Throughout the Eastern half of the U.S.
Illnesses: Powassan virus
Also called woodchuck ticks, groundhog ticks get their name because they prefer to attach onto groundhogs. They can also be found on squirrels, skunks, foxes, weasels, raccoons, and occasionally on people and pets, including cats and dogs. These ticks tend to be most active during the typical tick season in the warmer months. The small ticks are about the size of a sesame seed. To spot them, look for their reddish-tan color. Females have a scutum or shield on their back that is dark brown or black and in the shape of a diamond.
8. Rocky Mountain Wood Tick (Dermacentor andersoni)
Location: Rocky Mountain states (Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico) and Southwestern Canada
Illnesses: Colorado tick fever, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and tularemia
This tick gets its name based on where it is typically found—the Rocky Mountains. It lives high up in wooded areas that have an elevation between 4,000 and 10,500 feet. These parasites can be seen between January and November; they are less active in the summer. They are a shade of mocha, and part of their backs are cream-colored. The younger larvae and nymphs prefer to feed on small rodents, but the adults like to find large mammals such as dogs, deer, livestock, and people as hosts. Rocky Mountain wood ticks are known for spreading Colorado tick fever, which is similar to the flu with fatigue, aches, and chills.
9. Soft Tick (Ornithodoros)
Location: Throughout the Western half of the U.S., including Texas
Illnesses: Tick-borne relapsing fever (TBRF)
Soft ticks are unique since they latch on and feed for less than 30 minutes. Afterwards, they appear swollen and fleshy. In addition, they live in rodent burrows as opposed to grassy areas like other ticks. They have soft, oval bodies with their head tucked underneath. When someone is bitten by a soft tick, it is usually from spending time in a cave or from sleeping in a rustic cabin. These ticks are notorious for feeding on human blood while their host is asleep. Fortunately, TBRF is rare, but it can occur in mountainous regions in Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Colorado, and Texas.