Anti-Tick Tactics – Protect Yourself

This national Lyme disease map from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides an illustration of the approximate distribution of predicted Lyme disease risk in the United States. Note that Western New York is at high risk.

Warm weather is back. Hooray!  Break out the camo clothes and turkey calls, fishing rods and binoculars.  It’s time to enjoy the great outdoors again, but as you pursue outdoor fun, don’t forget that there are some less-than-desirable things pursuing you as well.  Foremost among those things are ticks, there are several types, but deer ticks- also known as black –legged ticks (Ixodes scapularis), have recently become known as the “bad boys.”  They’re very, very tiny, hard to see, and their bite is nearly painless.

For as long as I can recall – and I can recall more years than like – ticks have been a source of concern beyond the “ick” factor.  Back in the day, we worried about tularemia and Rocky Mountain Spotted fever.  More recently, we have added Lyme disease, Lyme-like disease, Ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis, babesiosis, borreliosis and probably a few others that haven’t crossed my radar yet.

Tick identification and relative size by stage in comparison. Courtesy of the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

The good news is that many of us will not get any of these maladies.  The bad news is that the chances of getting them are NOT ZERO and the consequences are potentially life-changing.  You want to do everything you can to reduce your chances of getting any tick-borne disease.

The additional good news is that there are excellent and very effective means of avoiding ticks.

Your first line of defense is clothing.  Long-sleeved shirts and long pants make it harder for ticks to reach your skin.  The wide variety of lightweight fabrics that wick moisture away from the skin makes it much more pleasant to dress for tick defense than it used to be.  Choose light colors to make it easy to see ticks that hitch a ride before they find an opening in your defenses.  You can further enhance clothing’s protective value by tucking pants legs into boots or using rubber bands to hold cuffs snug against your ankles and wrists.

These clothing measures are most effective when combined with chemical repellants.  Far and away the most effective of these is permethrin.  This chemical is lethal to ticks on contact, and they know it.  Just drop a tick on permethrin-treated clothing and see how it scrambles to get off!

Permethrin-based repellants are amazingly effective and because they work on all mites too, they also provide protection against the dread chigger mite.  Permethrin has low toxicity to humans and is poorly absorbed by skin.  It’s odorless once it dries, however, it is a toxin.  So the recommended method of usage is by spraying on clothing.  This is the best of all possible approaches anyway.  Once sprayed on clothes, permethrin-based repellants remain effective even after several washings. It’s actually not the water and detergent that remove it, but rather abrasion.  So to retain tick repellency as long as possible, wash garments on gentle cycle and line-dry them, rather than running them through a clothes dryer.

Do be aware that cats are more sensitive to permethrin than dogs or other mammals.  If you have cats in your home, keep them away from areas where you are spraying clothing, and change clothes before inviting Fluffy up on your lap.

I buy my permethrin in bulk online and treat several changes of clothes at once.  I lay the garments out on the driveway and spray one side, let them dry for a few minutes and then turn all the shirts, pants and socks over and repeat the process.  I keep treated clothes separate from the rest of my wardrobe so I know which ones to wear to the woods.

The next-most-effective tick deterrent is DEET (N, N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide).  Experts aren’t sure how DEET works, but there’s no question that it does.  Like permethrin, it is supposed to be applied to clothing, not skin.  Unlike permethrin, DEET comes off in the wash. It melts plastic, which is another significant disadvantage, and it smells awful and continues to smell as long as it is effective.  You don’t want to get this stuff in your eyes, but it works.

If you want real protection, go with permethrin or DEET.

Of course, even with the best of protection, you are going to get bitten occasionally.  This doesn’t have to be a problem. Your biggest risk of infection comes when a tick has fed for a while and regurgitates some of its stomach contents into your skin. This is most likely to happen some time after it attaches to you, so early removal is very important.

It’s hard to see every place on your body, so it makes sense to do a tick check with a friend as soon as possible after outings. (Insert joke here.)  When you find a tick DO NOT use one of the old methods of removal, such as touching it with a hot pin or covering it with a turpentine-soaked cotton ball. These methods will almost certainly cause the tick to regurgitate, which is the last thing you want.


Instead, use the following procedure:

  • Use sharp, needle-style tweezers or your fingers covered with rubber gloves or a piece of tissue paper to grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible.
  • Avoid squeezing the tick’s body.
  • Pull the tick slowly and steadily straight away from the skin until it pops free. This can take a few minutes.
  • Disinfect the bite area and tweezers/fingers with alcohol.

Then you have two choices, save the tick for medical analysis and review (place it in a tissue and insert in a pill bottle) or destroy the tick.  If you live in an area with high density to Lyme disease, save it and get the tick analyzed, and get to a doctor.  If not, it’s up to you.  I usually drop them in a jar of alcohol, a fire, etc.  They’re nasty critters and deserve it, or you can just flush it down the toilet, like my wife does.  If you are removing lots of ticks, it’s handy to use a piece of duct tape to corral them until you decide their fate.

Most tick bites are no big deal. However, you should keep an eye on them to be sure you don’t develop a bullseye rash at the bite site. If you do, get to a doctor for treatment.  Tick-borne diseases don’t mess around and you shouldn’t either.

It’s actually possible to have serious medical problems even if you don’t get one of the more dangerous tick-borne diseases from a bite.  Pay special attention to any tick bite on the head or neck. The proximity to the head and its sensitive neural tissue poses an increased risk of serious side effects from tick-borne diseases.

Besides the tick-borne diseases listed above, some people are particularly sensitive to the substances that ticks inject into bite victims, just as some people are extra sensitive to shellfish or peanuts.  For these unfortunate few, any tick bite is extremely unpleasant and some can be dangerous.  Tick toxicosis begins with reddening and swelling at the bite site.  If you get a reaction that goes beyond the usual slight redness at the bite site, seek medical help right away.  It’s not worth the risk of having it get worse.

Under no circumstances let fear of ticks keep you from enjoying the outdoors.  Be prepared by taking the proper precautions and enjoy the outdoors.