by Dr. Bill Rawls, Ellen Berman, Lindsey Shaffer
After a winter of crazy, La Niña-inspired weather across the country, we’re all feeling pretty excited about the arrival of spring. But whether winter in your region was colder, warmer, or wetter than usual, you’d better prepare for the same aftermath: An explosion in bug populations, including the number of ticks.
In fact, researchers are predicting that this may be one of the worst tick seasons yet. Which is particularly disconcerting, considering a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: It cited that the number of reported cases of disease from tick, mosquito, and flea bites tripled between 2004 and 2016.
While the numbers are concerning, don’t let them deter you from enjoying the great outdoors this season. Instead, add some natural and effective tick repellants and avoidance techniques to your protection plan. You can soak up some vitamin D and protect yourself from Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses at the same time, simply by being vigilant.
Tick Avoidance Tricks
The best way to ensure you don’t get bit by a tick is to eliminate close encounters altogether. While that’s not always 100% possible, taking these steps will minimize contact significantly.
Wear protective clothing. Before you venture outdoors, pull on a light-colored, long-sleeved shirt, and pants that extend all the way down to your feet — especially if you plan on enjoying a wooded area. Long sleeves and pants will act as a barrier to your skin, while light-colored clothing will help you spot ticks more easily.
Stay on the trail. Whether you’re hiking, biking, or jogging outside, stick to a well-managed path or trail. Ticks are less likely to hang out in sunny, open spaces with minimal leaf litter.
Perform regular self-checks. Even the quickest physical contact with vegetation is enough to pick up a tiny hitchhiker. So if you have a close brush with nature, stop and check for ticks. Remember that some ticks are smaller than a pinhead – they can be extremely difficult to spot – so pull out your reading glasses if you have to.
Don’t overlook your pets. Ticks and other blood-sucking insects can pass on harmful diseases to our furry friends, too. Have your pets regularly treated to reduce ticks and fleas. When your dog comes inside after running through the yard, check it thoroughly for ticks. Remember: Ticks like to hide in stealthy spots. Check your dog’s gums, ears, and toes, along with the rest of his furry self.
Maintain your yard. Ticks love to hang out in tall grass, so be sure to keep your lawn trimmed this spring and summer. They also enjoy moist, shaded wood piles. If you stack firewood in your yard, for instance, make sure it’s in a spot that gets some sun, to help keep it dry.
You can also use wood to your advantage. Ticks don’t enjoy crossing over rough surfaces, so use wood chips or gravel to create a 3-foot-wide barrier between your lawn and any wooded areas. It’s not foolproof, but it will go a long way toward keeping ticks out of your yard.
Replace deer-friendly plants. As enjoyable as it might be to see deer in your backyard, they often carry Lyme-bearing ticks. The Global Lyme Alliance recommends removing plants that attract deer if you can, including apple, pear and cherry trees, as well as rhododendrons, rose bushes, pansies, daisies, lilies, tulips, and black-eyed susans. You can replace them with plants that are not typically deer favorites, such as ornamental grass, red osier dogwood shrub, lavender, yarrow, dwarf aster, and creeping juniper groundcover.
Natural Tick Repellents
Most natural tick repellents are made with essential oils, a non-toxic alternative to synthetic insecticides and repellents that can cause skin irritation, dizziness, and disorientation when applied incorrectly. You can make your own natural solutions, or buy them readymade online or in many health stores. Here are some chemical-free options for both homemade and store-bought blends you can feel good about:
Rose-Geranium Oil. This essential oil was shown to be highly effective at deterring ticks in a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. Combine equal parts rose-geranium oil and coconut oil, and apply it regularly to your arms, neck, waist, and ankles.
Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus. Some research suggests that a 30% lemon eucalyptus oil preparation can be as effective as DEET in preventing both mosquito and tick bites. To make your own, mix together 30 drops of oil of lemon eucalyptus with 4 ounces of witch hazel (you can also use apple cider vinegar or vodka). Some people also add a teaspoon of vanilla, which may further repel ticks.
Citronella and Eucalyptus. These oils, along with lavender, juniper, oregano, and clove, compare favorably with DEET, but they must be reapplied more frequently than chemical tick repellants. Combine them with equal parts water or alcohol, shake, and apply.
Murphy’s Naturals Lemon Eucalyptus Oil Insect Repellent: Made with Citriodiol, a clinically proven 30% lemon eucalyptus oil preparation, it should be applied several times a day when spending time outdoors. Citriodiol is the only plant-based ingredient recommended by the CDC for repelling insects.
Botanical Solutions Tick Guard: Use this spray as a non-toxic repellent for ticks, fleas, and flies. It contains only a handful of ingredients, including peppermint, lemongrass, and rosemary oils.
YAYA Organics Tick Ban: This tick repellent contains 100% plant-based ingredients. It’s full of essential oils that drive away ticks, including geranium, cedar, peppermint, and thyme.
Wondercide Flea, Tick & Mosquito Control for Pets and Home: Use this spray safely in your home or on your pets to help keep your living space tick-free. Wondercide ingredients are 100% naturally-derived, including organic, therapeutic-grade essential oils.
Chemical Tick Repellants
While botanically-based bug repellants have a lower risk of the unpleasant side effects, you may find they are not as effective as chemically-based ones. Below are three chemical tick repellent options that are known to work well. Keep in mind that due to their toxicity, they are not recommended for those who are recovering from chronic illness.
DEET. Apply this tick repellent to your clothing – not your skin. DEET is the active ingredient in many popular tick and mosquito repellants. It is considered the most effective chemical repellent, but also the most toxic. If you have a debilitating disease or a sensitivity to DEET, do not use this product. Instead, choose a natural essential oil with insecticide properties (see above).
Permethrin. Apply Permethrin to your clothing, socks, and shoes. As with DEET, do not use this chemical repellent on your skin. Permethrin is a non-staining, odorless, water-based repellent that dries and bonds to cloth fiber. It resists degradation by sunlight, heat, and water. As a synthetic form of natural pyrethrin — a compound in chrysanthemum flowers that’s toxic to insects — Permethrin specifically targets the insect nervous system and has low toxicity to mammals.
Picaridin. This synthetic compound is made to resemble piperine, a natural component of plants that is used to produce black pepper. Some studies show that Picaridin can deliver long-lasting tick protection.
Self-Check and Tick Removal Steps
When prevention doesn’t work, diligent self-checks can help you detect and remove ticks from your body before they’re able to start feeding and transmit any troublemaking bacteria. Follow these 4 steps after you spend any amount of time gardening, hiking, picnicking, or enjoying any outdoor activity.
- Start with a thorough tick-check on your clothes. If they’re all clear, toss your clothes into the dryer and tumble dry on high heat for a least 10 minutes. Or, wash them in hot water. The high heat will kill any tiny ticks you might have missed.
- Before you get dressed again, conduct a full-body check. Ticks prefer warm, moist places, so be sure to check your armpits, in and around your ears, the back of your knees, between your legs, and around your hair. If you have time, jump in the shower for a final tick check and rinse off.
- If you do find a tick, remove it immediately. Use fine-tipped tweezers to grab the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible. Don’t twist or jerk the tick — this can cause parts of the insect to break off and remain in the skin. Instead, pull upward with a steady, even motion.
- After removing the tick, use rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water to thoroughly cleanse the bite area, as well as your hands. Dispose of the tick by submerging it in alcohol, then flushing it down the toilet or placing it in a sealed bag or container in the trash.
According to the CDC, in most cases, a tick must be attached for 36-48 hours before Lyme disease can be transmitted. If true, this means the odds of contracting the disease are low when you’re able to swiftly find and remove a tick.
Even with speedy removal, be sure to keep an eye out for the bullseye rash that can indicate Lyme, though not everyone who contracts Lyme develops a rash. Other early signs of Lyme include flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, headache, fatigue, and muscle and joint aches. If any of these arise, notify your doctor immediately about the bite.
Finally, remember that maintaining a strong immune system is key to fending off any tick-borne illness: Following a healthy and plant-heavy diet, staying physically active, minimizing toxin exposure and stress, and taking herbs is your absolute best recipe for wellness.