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Today, the only tick found to transmit Lyme disease is the black-legged tick, also known as the deer tick. Its scientific name is Ixodes Scapularis, and it is in the class of Arachnida. Deer ticks are the smallest ticks in the United States and Canada.

Deer ticks live for two to three years, growing a little bigger in each life cycle. To move to a new life cycle, ticks must have a blood meal by feeding on the warm blood of an animal or human. You may wonder, in which life cycle can the deer tick transmit Lyme disease to a human? Can they infect someone when they are at their smallest size?

To get an answer, let’s understand deer ticks at each stage of life.

Life Cycle 1: Eggs

The deer tick’s first stage is another tick’s last stage of life. An adult female tick will lay thousands of eggs in grassy areas with leaves and brush. Eggs are typically laid in the Spring, and at the same time, the adult female dies. Tick eggs are small and have red and brown translucent coloring.

Life Cycle 2: Larva

As temperatures rise and the Summer season arrives, the eggs begin hatching. Each larva has six legs. This stage lasts throughout the Summer, but larvae must find a warm-blooded host for a blood meal before moving to the third stage. 

Scientists have long believed deer tick larvae could not transmit bacteria to humans because they had never fed on an infected host. However, research shows that adult female deer ticks infected with bacteria can pass it on to their eggs. Therefore, larvae can be born with bacterial infections such as Lyme disease.

Larva born without bacterial infections can acquire them during life cycle 2. When it is time for them to feed, they attach to small rodents, especially mice and other animals they encounter in their grassy living area. If the animal is infected, the tick will also become infected.

Once a tick is infected, the bacteria remain in them throughout their lives.

Life Cycle 3: Nymph

From Fall to Winter and into Spring, larvae evolve into eight-legged nymphs. Many people think ticks die during winter months, but this is not true. When temperatures drop below freezing, deer ticks become dormant, hiding in the grasses and leaf litter to preserve energy. When temperatures rise, they become active again.

Nymphs do not search for their next blood meal host until early Spring. If they are not already infected with Lyme disease, they can contract it if they attach to an animal that has the disease. They can also contract coinfections. Nymphs can transmit Lyme disease and other infections to their host if infected.

Once nymphs feed, they return to a grassy area and transition into adulthood.

 

Can Small Ticks Transmit Lyme Disease? - Lyme Mexico

 

Life Cycle 4: Adult

The transition from nymph to adult occurs through the Summer and into the Fall when adults search for their final blood meal. If they do not find a host before Winter, they will go dormant until temperatures are warm enough to begin searching again. Adult ticks may attach to humans or any size animal for their final meal.

After they feed, they search for a mate. Male adult deer ticks die after mating. Females grow egg sacks that they leave in grassy areas to hatch. Females die soon after they detach from the egg sacks.

How Do Small Ticks Attach to Humans

Ticks engage in questing behaviors when searching for a warm-blooded host. Questing refers to a tick detecting human scents, heat, moisture, and vibrations in any life cycle. When they sense a person approaching, they climb to the top of grasses and leaves. 

Ticks use their bottom legs to grasp the vegetation to extend their front legs out in the air. They wait for a host to pass close by them, at which time they latch on. Ticks may travel the human body for hours or days, looking for the best spot to feed.

When they find a good spot, they scratch the skin’s surface and break it open just enough to embed their head under it and feed on blood. Some ticks release a sticky substance, like saliva, to secure their position. The substance has anesthetic effects, so humans cannot feel it. While feeding, ticks spread bacteria that cause diseases. Some ticks will spend hours feeding, and others will feed for days if they go undetected.

Common Hosts for Small Ticks

The most common hosts for deer ticks in life cycle 2 include white-footed mice, squirrels, opossums, skunks, raccoons, chipmunks, moles, voles, migratory birds, shrews, and other small wildlife. Other animals that attract ticks in every life cycle include rabbits, deer, foxes, coyotes, and bears. Unfortunately, children, youth, adults, and family pets are not immune to deer ticks.

Can Small Ticks Transmit Lyme Disease?

Yes, small ticks can transmit Lyme disease and many other coinfections to humans if infected with bacteria when they take a blood meal from a host. The United States has tracked small tick infections for several years. Out of 77,662 ticks tested between May 2019 and May 2024:

  • 18,148 tested positive for one pathogen
  • 3,238 tested positive for two pathogens
  • 1,056 tested positive for three pathogens
  • 55,113 were not infected

Common coinfections included anaplasmosis, babesiosis, Bartonellosis, ehrlichiosis, and the Powassan virus. Ticks were found most frequently in children between 0 and 11, followed by adults between 35 and 44. 

Takeaway

Small ticks can transmit Lyme disease in the larva, nymph, and adult life stages. This means year-round prevention is necessary to avoid contracting infections. Ticks may be active most of the year, depending on outside temperatures.

Take preventative measures to protect yourself and your loved ones from small deer ticks. Wear protective clothing and shoes, spray repellant on your clothes and body, and conduct tick checks when returning from the outdoors.

Most importantly, work with a Lyme-literate doctor to learn more about small ticks that transmit Lyme disease, coinfections, and the associated symptoms. They can also share new testing and treatment methods if a small tick with Lyme disease bites you.

Consider traveling outside the United States, Canada, and the UK to Mexico to meet with a top clinic, Lyme Mexico. Learn more about Lyme disease or schedule an evaluation. We can discuss your symptoms and the alternative treatment options that work.

 

Can Small Ticks Transmit Lyme Disease? - Lyme Mexico

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