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As a general rule, I find it’s best to beware of things that want to suck your blood. Like vampires. Or people who drain your life force like vampires. Ticks are a prime example of this rule. Once regarded as little more than a temporary nuisance, as scientists learn more about ticks and the potential diseases they spread, they’re beginning to discover that tick-transmitted illnesses are much more numerous and problematic than previously thought.

Diseases spread by ticks

Lyme disease is the most common and well-known of tick-transmitted illnesses. But it isn’t the only one. Over the last few decades a number of other tick-related diseases have been identified. Ticks can carry less-common pathogens like the granulocytic anaplasmosis virus and babesiosis. They can transmit the Powassan virus, which is far more rare but also potentially fatal. Ticks can spread diseases like Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF), which is more fatal than Lyme. (Despite its name, RMSF is more common in the central and southern U.S. than it is in the Rockies.)

Tick bites can also cause what is known as alpha-gal syndrome, a type of potentially fatal meat and dairy allergy that develops when proteins from the other animals a tick feeds on get into the bloodstream, causing the body to develop an allergic reaction.

Which ticks spread disease?

Both the backlegged tick and the western backlegged tick are primary carriers of Lyme disease. The backlegged tick (or deer tick) is widely distributed throughout the United States and portions of Canada. The western backlegged tick is found in regions along the west coast. Yet every tick has the potential to carry different diseases, and any tick that feeds off animals (which is all of them) has the potential to cause alpha-gal syndrome.

Not every tick carries Lyme or other diseases, and not every person bitten by an infected tick will become infected themselves. Yet “in places like Long Island,” says microbiologist Rafal Tokarz, “up to 45 percent of all deer ticks are infected with multiple pathogens.” (Beil, 2019) Any tick that has fed on animals also has the potential to cause alpha-gal syndrome. So it’s best to play it safe and assume that any tick bite is problematic.

Tick-transmitted diseases & climate change

Warming temperatures are expanding the habitable zones for many ticks, leading to increasing rates of tick-transmitted diseases. For example, in 2002, parts of eastern Ontario were too cold for Lyme-spreading ticks to survive. But in 2012 satellite data suggested these regions had warmed just enough for these ticks to make themselves home.

Protecting your family from ticks & the diseases they spread

Ticks, like mosquitoes, are part of the natural world, and there’s no way to avoid them completely.. You certainly shouldn’t let a fear of ticks keep you from letting your kids explore nature. The benefits your children receive from time spent outdoors far outweighs any risks. But there are some precautions you can take to keep ticks at bay:

1. When hiking or spending time in the forest, have kids wear hats and, depending on the situation, pants and long-sleeve shirts. Personally, I wouldn’t torture my children by making them cover head to toe on a hot day when they’d prefer a tank top and shorts. But ticks hang out on leaves and wait for any living thing to walk by and brush against them, at which point they’ll hitch a ride. The less exposed skin you have, the harder it is for them to find a spot to feed. Even wearing thin leggings or long tube socks can help, and hats protect your child’s scalp, where ticks are harder to spot. (Try to have girls tuck their hair inside the hat.) Also tuck your pants into your socks and your shirt into your pants.

2. Wear light colors and close-toed shoes, as in not sandals.

3. Insect repellants containing 30% DEET or 20% Icaridin (also called Ticaridin) can help.

3. After you come back from a hike or time spent in nature, do a quick head to toe inspection, grooming each other like monkeys do, to discover any hitchhikers you might have picked up along the way.

4. Rake and properly dispose of leaves around your yard during fall. One study found that when you leave leaf piles to sit throughout the winter, there’s 3-times as many back legged ticks in those areas come springtime. So after you’ve raked them up and your kids have had their fun, spread the leaves far away from the house in areas your family doesn’t frequent, or leave them for curb-side pickup.

Do I need to worry about ticks during the winter?
Some ticks, such as the backlegged (deer) tick and the western backlegged tick, can be active during the winter months if there’s no snow on the ground and temperatures are above 35 degrees Fahrenheit. So while the risk is much lower during the winter, it’s still possible for ticks to spread diseases.

Additional information on ticks & the diseases they spread


  • Beil, L. (2019, June 22) “The trouble with Lyme disease testing,” Science News, Vol. 195(11): 22-26
  • Finan, E. (2023, July 31) “Fighting a deadly tick allergy,” People, pp. 52-53
  • Milius, Susan (2017) “Bulletins from the tick wars,” Science News, Aug. 19, pp. 16-21
  • Reddy, S (2018, July 10) “Effort for Lyme disease vaccine draws fire,” Wall Street Journal, A9
  • The Week, July 1, 2022, p. 11

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