Do you love hiking or other outdoor activities in the summer? How do you keep yourself and family safe from ticks and the diseases they carry? Seems like there are more and more ticks every year and more and more diseases to worry about. I’m especially aware of the risk as we see clients in our office who come for help with their brain performance, which has been compromised by Lyme disease. Some have had their careers and every day functioning significantly impacted.
We’ve learned by doing some research that there’s actually quite a lot you can do to reduce your risk of the little buggers attaching to you.
Here are the top 7 things you need to know to help protect yourself and your family.
- GOOD (but not always practical): Wear socks with close-toed shoes and long sleeves and pants, and light colors (light-colored clothes make it easier to spot ticks). Tuck your shirt into your pants and your pants into your socks. When you get home, shower, then inspect your skin and use tweezers to remove ticks. For extra safety, toss clothes into a dryer on high heat to kill stragglers.
- BETTER (and easier): Use pyrethrin treated clothing or treat your own shoes/ clothing. It’s affordable, looks like ordinary clothing, and lasts through many washes!
- An easy way to help avoid tick bites is to wear clothing (shoes, socks, shorts or pants, and shirt) with pyrethrin tick repellant built-in. Pyrethrin has no odor and does not leave a residue on clothing. It binds to the fabric and not your skin. I’ve spent many hours in pyrethrin treated shoes/ socks with no skin irritation. https://www.insectshield.com. You can also send in your own clothing to be treated.
- Shoes and socks are the most important items to treat with pyrethrin. The really tiny hard to spot nymph stage of deer ticks hatch in leaf litter and crawl up. Pyrethrin gives them “hot feet” and they drop off and die within 10-30 seconds. Their first contact point is often your shoe. You can buy pyrethrin on Amazon. Pyrethrins are not effective on your skin as the naturally occurring enzymes in your skin break down the chemical. Studies indicate that pyrethrins have a very high repellant rate of around 98%.
- Commercially treated clothing lasts through 50-70 washes. Clothing you treat yourself lasts through 6-12 washes. Pyrethrins are toxic to honey bees and fish so follow application and disposal directions.
- BEST PROTECTION: Use Pyrethrin clothing and DEET wisely on areas that aren’t covered by clothing. It’s not great to be spraying chemicals on your skin, but tick borne diseases are pretty toxic also. Most of the research citing toxic effects of DEET has been done on natural park employees who spray on a daily basis. The toxicity of DEET is unclear and is still under investigation so use with caution and only when necessary.
- To reduce the risk use a lower percentage DEET product. Most of the research we read mentioned no increased benefit for anything above 30%. Consumer Reports in their testing indicate that 7% was not very effective. So it looks like something in the 15-30% range is preferable and seems to last around 8 hours.
- DEET with a polymer treatment allows a lower concentration of DEET to last longer. Some brand names of DEET plus polymer are “Ultrathon,” “Hourguard,” and “Skedaddle”. Ultrathon is available at REI. I’ve heard good reports about Ultrathon from hikers on the Appalachian trail. One husband and wife went hiking, the wife used Ultrathon and had no ticks, but her husband did not and had dozens, which his wife had to help him remove at the end of the day.
To minimize DEET absorption, the following precautions are suggested:
- Apply DEET only as frequently as the manufacturer’s recommendation.
- Avoid applying repellents to children’s hands that are likely to have contact with the eyes or mouth.
- Do not drink repellents or get them into the eyes or mouth. Drinking large amounts of DEET can be fatal. Avoid inhaling DEET spray.
- Keep repellents out of open cuts or inflamed or irritated skin.
- Wash off repellents after coming indoors.
- Keep DEET out of the reach of children and make sure that DEET is applied by adults or older teens.
- ALL NATURAL ALTERNATIVES: Essential oils (the natural compounds of plants) may be especially effective at repelling ticks and other pests. Some studies have shown excellent protection while others haven’t. Until it’s been studied more I would not regard it as complete a level of protection as DEET.
- Since this article was first published we’ve had several comments that folks have found Cedar oil (Cedrus atlantica Manetti-Pinaceae) to be more effective against ticks than the other oils mentioned below. One comment mentioned high effectiveness in the Berkshires which is high tick country. Subscribe to our newsletter for a future update on how to use cedar oil (also know as cedar wood oil) and how to make a spray with mixed essential oils to capture the best qualities of each. Cedar oil is also a component of several natural repellants on the market including Cedarcide and Wondercide which can be used on pets.
- Rose Geranium oil (Pelargonium roseum) in particular may be useful as tick repellant. It can be used on both people and animals (except cats). Anecdotal reports are encouraging: one woman we read about went from finding multiple ticks on herself and her dog every day to NONE for months on end using this oil. You can use a drop undiluted on the skin on the wrists, ankles or neck or you can dilute it in a carrier oil and apply more liberally to exposed skin. Always dilute extra (1:9) for pet application and use lightly.
- A 2013 study found Geranium oil (Pelargonium graveolens) to be just as effective as DEET in repelling ticks (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23528036).
- Other essential oils that may be useful in keeping ticks away are citronella (Cymbopogon winterianus), catnip (Nepeta cataria), lemon eucalyptus (Eucalyptus citriodora), Sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata), Eucalypus (Eucalyptus globulus), peppermint (mentha piperita), or citrus oils like lemon, lime and sweet orange.
- Make a spray solution of vinegar, water and almond oil– ticks naturally hate vinegar and the sulfur found in almond oil. For example- 1 cup vinegar, 1/2 cup water, 1-2 tbsp oil, 20 drops of essential oils.
- You can mix any essential oil with a carrier oil like coconut, almond, sunflower or hemp seed oils and apply topically to the skin. You could also make a spray with water, vinegar or witch hazel (to help the essential oil mix with water) and essential oils of choice. A good rule of thumb is 12 drops of essential oil in every 1 mL of oil or liquid.
- When using essential oils, be sure to buy from a reputable source like Mountain Rose Herbs, DoTerra or Young Living and look into the safety for use during pregnancy.
- DAILY TICK CHECK: Use pyrethrin treated clothing, DEET on exposed skin, plus a DAILY tick check if you’ve spent much time in tick infested areas. Even a quick daily tick check at bath or shower time can be helpful in finding and removing attached ticks before they can transmit disease. Be especially vigilant about looking at your ears, hairline, where shoes or socks meet skin, backs of knees, groin, and waist when returning from tick country. Many of the disease carrying microbes transmitted by ticks need a “re-activation” period in the tick once it begins to feed. The germs eventually make their way into the tick’s salivary glands and the ticks spits them into you while feeding. Some infections, especially viruses, move into the tick salivary glands faster than others. Some sources report Lyme disease bacteria may take at least 24 hours to invade the tick’s saliva.
If you do find an attached tick: Most websites we searched recommended the following procedure for tick removal: (a) use blunt forceps or tweezers; (b) grasp the tick as close to the skin surface as possible and pull upward with steady, even pressure; (c) take care not to squeeze, crush, or puncture the tick; (d) do not handle the tick with bare hands because infectious agents may enter via mucous membranes or breaks in the skin; and (e) after removing the tick, disinfect the bite site and wash hands thoroughly with soap and water.
Don’t ditch the tick! You can save any removed ticks in a ziplock and send it in for laboratory testing. Save in plastic bag or pill bottle in the refrigerator for up to 10 days. Testing is relatively inexpensive via tickcheck.com or tickreport.com, it’s $50 to 199 depending on how many tests you request. They can also check for degree of engorgement so you can have an estimate of how long the tick was feeding. The longer the feeding the higher the risk of disease transmission. I’ve had testing done on a tick that was attached to my foot. It was a relief to know the tick wasn’t carrying disease.
Testing is not a substitute for medical care, but is a good additional data point for your physician. Different species of ticks transmit different pathogens, and most tick-borne diseases have similar early symptoms, therefore knowing the species and infection status of the tick enhances the physician’s ability to consider tick-borne agents as a potential cause of disease and recommend appropriate therapy.
If you don’t want to go ahead with testing, you can submerge it in alcohol or wrap it tightly in tape.
- PLAN TO AVOID THE WORST OF THE TICK SEASON: Plan your more extensive outdoor excursions for the fall when ticks are larger and easier to spot.
- Ticks are in the nymph stage from April through August and are the size of the head of a pin or poppy seed. They are very hard to spot at this stage and often go undetected. “The worst tick is the one you don’t see.” Most tick-borne disease transmission happens in this phase because they are so hard to see and effectively remove before they’ve transmitted disease.
- Ticks crawl up. They generally will attach somewhere on your legs or feet and crawl up. Your legs and feet are the most important area to watch for tick attachment and to apply insecticide.
- FOR YOUR LAWN AND LANDSCAPING: Don’t think you’re immune to ticks if you live in an urban area. Northern Virginia’s urban areas have a lot of green space and we’ve picked up ticks strolling through more brushy areas near our house. There is an elegant solution that counts on mice and their nesting behavior. If mice are present in the landscape (they almost always are), then they typically are very attracted by cotton nesting material. If tubes with cotton nesting material treated with pyrethrins (AKA Tick Tubes) are placed in areas harboring mice, the mice steal the treated nesting material and place it in their nests. Once mice have treated nests, they almost never are infested by ticks. With complete coverage in a yard, in time nearly all of the mice will have treated nests. In this way, targeting the ticks that feed on mice can reduce the number of infected ticks in your yard.
You can also get some beneficial nematodes to help keep ticks out of your yard, Steinernema and Heterorhabditis are the most helpful species. They are harmless to vertebrates, but love to attack garden pests.
Don’t shoo away visiting opossums, they also eat ticks and their larvae! Allow your neighborhood opossums to clean your yard for you. Research shows it is actually extremely rare for an opossum to have rabies.
You can make a large vinegar and essential oil spray for your yard! Instead of harmful pesticides, use nature’s “chemicals” to ward off unwanted pests. Consider cedar oil, rose geranium or sweetgrass oils.
Garlic Barrier, a liquid garlic extract and water, may help to keep away ticks and insects. It won’t harm humans or animals and the garlic scent fades in about 30 minutes. While it won’t kill existing ticks, it may ward them off to begin with.
Spread diatomaceous earth in your yard, especially in tall grasses or moist wooded areas. Harmless to people, it kills fleas, ticks, lice, mites and larvae. (I love this suggestion and am going to be trying it this year. I’ve found diatomaceous earth to be very effective against ants inside the house so can’t wait to try this trick outside.)
Remove debris and unnecessary branches and yard waste that keep in moisture and attract ticks. Keep grass mowed short, ticks need moisture to live.
I hope you find these tips helpful and that they will help you take back the outdoors. Have fun out there and be safe!