by Jenny Lelwica Buttaccio
Each year, as summer approaches, a specific image circulates across social media platforms to serve as a warning to people to be on the lookout for ticks and tick nests. If you’re a member of the Lyme community, you’ve probably seen it once or twice on your Facebook feed. The natural reaction: To gasp in horror at the disgusting sight — and to renew your commitment to being vigilant about these blood-suckers and steering clear of tall blades of grass during the summer.
The image — labeled as an up-close-and-personal view of tick eggs — looks like a blackish-purple pile of goop that would fit in the palm of your hand. Although it’s on the ground, this dark lump is in stark contrast to the green and beige foliage it rests on.
Certainly you would expect to notice a tick nest this size and color while enjoying outdoor activities like walking, hiking, and biking — it’s unmistakable, right? It should be a cinch to avoid coming in contact with ticks and ultimately, contracting Lyme disease.
But there’s one major problem with this image: Tick eggs are nearly microscopic in size, and ticks themselves can be virtually undetectable. As ticks progress through their life cycle stages (egg, larva, nymph, and adult), they can range in size from a period at the end of a sentence to the approximate dimensions of a sesame seed. And so although the image could mislead you to believe tick eggs and thus ticks are clearly visible, nothing could be further from the truth.
In reality, it’s what you don’t see that can pose a dangerous threat to your health.
Lyme disease-carrying ticks have been found in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and they have spread throughout half of all counties in the U.S., according to a study by Quest Diagnostics and research published in the Journal of Medical Entomology, respectively. As the tick population continues to increase, there’s a good chance you’ll come in contact with one in the near future.
Although the black-legged deer tick is our primary concern to avoid contracting Lyme disease or a coinfection like Bartonella or Babesia, other ticks can carry pathogens that affect you, too. Ultimately, an aggressive approach to prevention is key to protecting you and your family from tick-borne diseases. Here’s what you need to know.
7 Steps to Protect Yourself Against Ticks
1. Get Familiar With Your Outdoor Surroundings.
By now, most people in the general public are probably aware that wooded areas provide a friendly dwelling for ticks. But there are other areas and conditions that can be favorable to ticks as well. Ticks may also inhabit:
- A variety of tall grass species
- Overgrown or unkempt grass
- Areas covered in brush
- Piles of leaf litter
- Other animals
Activities like walking your dog, gardening, camping, hunting, or other outdoor endeavors can put you at risk of coming in contact with ticks, cautions the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Furthermore, even if your home turf doesn’t seem like prime tick territory, transport vehicles like rodents and birds can carry the bugs straight to your own backyard.
This news might make you feel inclined to swear off outdoor activities altogether, but it’s not necessary. Head to well-maintained outdoor areas, and stay on paved pathways or the center of trails to minimize your risk of exposure to ticks.
2. Protect Exposed Skin with the Right Tick Repellant.
When trying to find the best tick repellents, there are several options to choose from. Repellents that contain the following chemicals can be safely used on adult skin, as indicated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):
- Oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE)
- Para-menthane-diol (PMD)
A word of caution about the use of tick repellants on children: The CDC advises not to use any insect repellents on babies 2 months of age or younger. Also, they don’t recommend using products that contain OLE or PMD on children who are under the age of 3. Safer options for kids include:
- DEET with lower concentrations of 20-30%
- Other natural, topical products (Note that many of these products provide repellent protection for only a short period of time.)
To apply tick repellents on children, avoid spraying the product directly into the child’s face, especially their eyes and mouth. Instead, apply the product to your hands and pat it on the exposed areas of skin on your child.
3. Use Permethrin on Clothing and Outdoor Gear.
Permethrin is an insecticide, which means it can kill ticks and repel them. It’s created from synthetic chemicals that mimic the tick-deterring properties in the natural extracts of the chrysanthemum flower. Products containing 0.5% of permethrin are the most effective at helping you protect yourself, according to the CDC.
To ramp up your defense against ticks, follow the recommendations on the bottle to spray clothing, shoes, and outdoor gear like camping equipment, but not your skin directly. When used as recommended, permethrin is considered safe, but it can act as an endocrine disruptor in high doses.
Your clothing should be damp from the spray, but not so saturated that you can ring them out, and make sure they’re dry before wearing them. Additionally, you shouldn’t spray permethrin on your undergarments or on clothing that’s already on your body.
Clothing treated with permethrin will last about three to four weeks with washings before they require re-treatment. Of course, this is an approximate time frame; if you wash your outdoor clothing frequently, you may need to spray them more often. You can also purchase clothing that has been pre-treated with permethrin from most outdoor and sporting-good stores like LL Bean and REI, which last through 70 washes. Permethrin-treated clothing can be used on children, too.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that although wearing permethrin-treated clothing will reduce your risk of getting a tick bite, it’s not a foolproof strategy. You’ll still need to remain vigilant about any ticks that decide to hitch a ride on your clothing, and inspect your skin after spending time outdoors for the sneaky, creepy crawlers.
4. Protect your Pets.
When implementing tick prevention strategies, don’t forget to protect your furry family members, too. Both dogs and cats can act as blood meals for ticks and a means of transportation back to your home base.
Be conscious about allowing your pets to roam or play in areas that are prone to ticks, and carefully examine their coats when they come indoors. Ideal hiding places for ticks include the ears, between the toes, under collars or bandanas, the underside of the tail, near the eyes, and the genital area.
From flea and tick collars to permethrin-treated bandanas, there are many products on the market designed to repel ticks from your four-legged friends, and some work better than others. To find a product that is right for you, consult with your veterinarian and use the product as directed on the package. Regularly grooming your pet, finding the right flea and tick collar, and maintaining your lawn can do a lot to keep your pet, and you, safe.
5. When You Return Indoors, Take a Shower.
Showering can help wash off ticks that may be crawling on you before they latch on. It can also reduce your risk of contracting Lyme disease and other tick-borne infections if it’s done within two hours of coming inside, states the CDC. How so?
The longer a tick is attached to you, the higher your chances are of being infected with pathogens. It should be noted, however, that it can be difficult to determine how long a tick has been attached to its human host. Plus, removing an embedded tick quickly doesn’t completely eliminate the possibility of contracting a tick-borne infection.
The minimum amount of time a tick needs to be attached to infect you has never been accurately established, according to a data review in the International Journal of General Medicine. While some people say transmission risk is low if the tick is removed within 24 to 48 hours, there have been documented cases of people contracting Lyme disease in less than six hours. Plus, other tick-borne diseases including Bartonella, Babeisa, Anaplasmosis, Mycoplasma, and others may happen much more rapidly — within minutes after a tick has punctured the skin.
6. Look For Ticks On Yourself And Your Family.
The perfect time to check you or your family for ticks that may have attached is after the shower. When inspecting yourself, a handheld mirror can be useful for areas that are more difficult to see. Begin at the top of your head and work your way down; inconspicuous places where ticks like to hide include:
- On the scalp
- Along the hairline
- In the ears or the surrounding skin
- In the armpits
- In the belly button
- Around the waistband
- In the groin or genital region
- Behind the knee caps
7. Remove a Tick the Right Way
You’ll come across a lot of suggestions on the Internet for removing a tick, including burning the tick, using essential oils on it, slathering it with Vaseline, or tapping its tush with a cotton ball saturated with vinegar. None of these methods work, and in fact, they can agitate the tick and cause it to regurgitate its contents into your bloodstream, upping your risk for a microbial infection.
To properly remove a tick once it has latched on, follow these three steps:
- Use a pair of fine-pointed tweezers — place them as close to your skin as possible and grasp the tick’s mouth.
- Firmly pull the tick straight out of the skin.
- Wash the bite with soap and water.
For further guidance on how to remove a tick, check out this video from the University of Manitoba.
To test your tick for pathogens, you can mail it to labs like IGeneX to see if it carries harmful microbes. Also, stay on the lookout for the symptoms of Lyme disease, especially flu-like symptoms in the summer months. And talk with a doctor who is versed in the diagnosis and treatment of Lyme disease if you’ve gotten an acute tick bite or suspect you’ve been infected.
Lyme disease testing is often inaccurate at this early stage of the game, so some physicians may wish to treat you with a preventative course of antibiotics rather than adopt a wait-and-see approach, which could lead to chronic problems further down the line.
Don’t let the threat of ticks keep you from going outdoors this season. Utilize the advice above and keep a vigilant eye, and you can enjoy an active, fearless summer!
1. Breuner NE, Hojgaard A, Replogle AJ, Boegler KA, Eisen L. Transmission of the relapsing fever spirochete, Borrelia miyamotoi, by single transovarially-infected larval Ixodes scapularis ticks. Ticks and Tick-Borne Diseases. 2018 Sep; 9(6): 1464-1467. doi: 10.1016/j.ttbdis.2018.07.006
2. Cook MJ. Lyme borreliosis: a review of data on transmission time after tick attachment. International Journal of General Medicine. 2015; 8: 1–8. doi: 10.2147/IJGM.S73791
3. Eisen RJ, Eisen L, Beard CB. County-Scale Distribution of Ixodes scapularis and Ixodes pacificus (Acari: Ixodidae) in the Continental United States. Journal of Medical Entomology. 2016 March; 53(2): 3349-386. doi: 10.1093/jme/tjv237
4. Health Trends Lyme Disease. Quest Diagnostics website. https://mma.prnewswire.com/media/724151/Quest_LymeDiseaseTrendsReport.pdf?p=original
5. How to Properly Remove a Tick [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=27McsguL2Og Published on June 25, 2013. Assessed on April 12, 2019.
6. Preventing Tick Bites. Centers for Disease Control website. https://www.cdc.gov/ticks/avoid/on_people.html
7. Skin-Applied Repellent Ingredients. United States Environmental Protection Agency website. https://www.epa.gov/insect-repellents/skin-applied-repellent-ingredients
8. Tick Testing. IGenex website. https://igenex.com/product/tick-test/