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How Can You Prevent Tick Bites?

If you like to go out in the woods, you need a strategy to prevent tick bites: protective clothing, effective repellent and tick checks.

As we move into summertime and look forward to outdoor activities such as biking, hiking and camping, a lot of people start to worry about Lyme disease. While this infection can be serious, it is not the only disease that ticks can transmit. Rocky Mountain spotted fever, anaplasmosis and babesiosis are also serious concerns. In addition, a bite from a lone star tick can trigger a potentially deadly delayed reaction to eating red meat. Doctors refer to this as an “alpha-gal allergy.” What are the best tactics to prevent tick bites? If you are going to spend any time outdoors this summer you need to start preparing.

Why You Should Avoid Tick Bites!

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever:

First, be advised that ticks are just about everywhere. The brown dog tick (Rhipicephalus sanguineus) is found in virtually every state. It transmits Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever along with the American dog tick and the Rocky Mountain wood tick. If not treated promptly, this infection can cause long term health problems or even death. It is nasty.

Ehrlichiosis, Tularemia, STARI, Alpha-Gal Syndrome:

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) has spread to almost half the country. It now reaches from Texas to Maine. It has also been discovered in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. Besides some very nasty diseases, it can also cause red meat allergy. You can read about this unusual condition at this link.

Lyme Disease, et al:

You have doubtless heard about Lyme disease (Borrelia burgdorferi). It is transmitted by the black-legged tick (Ixodes scapularis). This undesirable critter has spread to over half the country, from North Dakota to Texas in the west and New York and New England in the east.

In addition to Lyme disease, this tick can transmit babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, hard tick relapsing fever and Powassan virus disease. These are all horrible conditions that you do not want to catch. Learn how to Avoid Lyme and Other Tick-Borne Diseases at this link/podcast. Two fabulous experts will bring you up to speed on these conditions!

We could go on. There are at least 15 different diseases! But let’s get busy helping you avoid tick bites in the first place.

How Can You Prevent Tick Bites?

Q. What’s the most effective bug spray to keep ticks off? We walk our dogs in the woods almost every day and would like to avoid tick-borne diseases.

A. It is safest to avoid tall grass and underbrush if you can. Of course, that may not be practical when you are walking dogs. According to Consumer Reports (July, 2019), either putting DEET bug repellent on your skin or wearing permethrin-treated clothing can help. DEET also works well to repel mosquitoes.

A few years ago, a team of researchers at New Mexico State University tested a range of products promoted for preventing mosquito bites (Rodriguez et al, Journal of Insect Science, online, Feb. 16, 2017). Only DEET, a tried-and-true insect repellent, and oil of lemon eucalyptus were very effective at discouraging Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. This is important because this type of mosquito can carry viruses that cause Zika, yellow fever, chikungunya and dengue.

What Didn’t Work for Mosquitoes:

Wearable devices such as bracelets were almost totally ineffective. People should not rely on them. Citronella candles, a popular product for people who don’t like bug spray, did not work well either.

The scientists urge consumers to read the labels on their spray and choose one with lemon eucalyptus oil or DEET. When there is a possibility that a mosquito bite could lead to a serious infection, only the most effective repellent will do.

Unfortunately, oil of lemon eucalyptus, while effective against mosquitoes, is less effective against ticks. Picaridin is a non-DEET insect repellent that does appear to work quite well against ticks. Unlike DEET, picaridin will not dissolve plastics or synthetic fabrics.

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Wear Permethrin-Coated Clothing:

Confession: I am not a big fan of DEET. Even though it is highly effective, I do not like the feel of this chemical on my skin. My preferred method to avoid ticks is to spray my hiking shoes, socks and pants with permethrin and let it dry before wearing.

Long pants are a critical barrier to prevent tick bites. You will get the best protection by tucking the cuffs of your pants into your socks. To stay even safer, you may want to consider gaiters impregnated with permethrin. Two brands to consider are Lymeez Tick Gear and Outdoor Research Bugout Rocky Mountain High Gaiters. When we take our dogs for a walk in the woods we always wear our gaiters!

Andrea in NC offered this advice:

“I highly recommend wearing Insect-Shield gear. You can buy shirts, socks, pants, hats and buffs at REI or other outdoor stores. Permethrin is bonded to the clothing, which can be washed up to 70 times before the effect disappears (don’t dry clean, though!). We live in NC and recommend it to all our friends. It really works. Also, you can ship your own clothing to their factory in Greensboro and they will do the same treatment (much cheaper option!). I first bought this before a trip to Cambodia. I wear it every day during the summers here!”

KAF in Massachusetts has an additional caution for cat lovers:

“I work outdoors and use permethrin-treated clothing all the time. The number of ticks I find on me has dropped. It is important to know that while people and dogs seem to handle exposure to this chemical with no ill effects, cat do not. I do not know about other animals but it may not be safe for aquatic life if you fish or wade in the water. At home, I keep clothing I am not wearing in a sealed plastic box or in my car away from my cats. I also change out of it when I get home and wash this clothing only with other permethrin clothing and not my everyday other clothes. It has not been approved for use in Europe.”

Tick Check Every Day:

Even with such precautions, however, you must perform tick checks whenever you come inside from your walks. Take off your clothes, put them in the wash and check your skin all over. Remember that ticks like to hide in cracks and crevices. The sooner you find and remove any ticks that have attached themselves to you, the better.

How Quickly Does a Tick Transmit Disease?

It takes about 24 hours or possibly a bit longer for a tick to transmit Borrelia burgdorferi, the pathogen that causes Lyme disease. However, other diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever are transmitted much more quickly.

Several years ago, Brazilian scientists found that ticks may be quicker to pass along their germs than anyone imagined (Emerging Infectious Diseases, Sep. 2014). In an experiment, they exposed guinea pigs to infected ticks and found that the rickettsia of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever appeared in the animals within just 10 minutes of the tick attaching.

The dog ticks that are generally responsible for this disease in the US have not been studied in a similar experiment, but it would be foolish to assume that it takes a long time for the germs to pass from tick to human. There is currently no evidence suggesting that the Borrelia of Lyme disease are transmitted more quickly than 24 hours, however (Ticks and Tick-Borne Diseases, March 2018). Efforts to prevent tick bites and remove ticks promptly remain the best ways to protect yourself from disease.

How to Remove Ticks:

First, do not use heat! When I was a kid my dad would light a match, blow it out and then hold the hot end of the match to the tail end of the tick. He was following a folk legend that the heat would make the tick want to back out. Some people used a lit cigarette to do the same thing. Bad idea! As far as I can tell, such strategies are ineffective and might even be counterproductive.

That also goes for the idea of suffocating a tick with petroleum jelly or some other gooey cream or ointment. And forget about trying to drown the tick with rubbing alcohol, kerosene or witch hazel. Don’t squeeze the tick with your fingers. All these strategies might backfire and get the tick to disgorge its nastiness into your skin even faster.

Most dermatologists recommend using narrow tweezers or special medium-tipped, blunt-angled forceps. They grab the tick as close to the mouth as possible and slowly pull it straight up, being careful not to twist or yank suddenly. It takes patience because you would prefer to extract all the mouth parts.

There are a bunch of tick-removal tools on the market. There’s Tweezerman Splintertweeze, the Original Tick Key, 2-in-1 Tick Removal Tool Set and Tick Remover Spoon. We have no particular favorite.

Learn More:

To really understand the best way to protect yourself from ticks please take a few minutes to listen to our radio show/podcast interview with Dr. John Aucott, director of the Johns Hopkins Lyme Disease Clinical Research Center, and Dr. Alexis Chesney, author of Preventing Lyme and Other Tick-Borne Diseases. It is the best book we have discovered on controlling ticks in the home landscape.

If you have found this article of value, please pass it along to friends and family. And if you think our free newsletter is worthwhile, please encourage acquaintances to subscribe at this link.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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  • Rodriguez SD et al, "Efficacy of some wearable devices compared with spray-on insect repellents for the yellow fever mosquito, Aedes aegypti (L.) (Diptera: Culicidae)." Journal of Insect Science, Feb. 16, 2017. https://doi.org/10.1093/jisesa/iew117
  • Saraivo DG et al, "Feeding period required by Amblyomma aureolatum ticks for transmission of Rickettsia rickettsii to vertebrate hosts." Emerging Infectious Diseases, Sep. 2014.
  • Eisen L, "Pathogen transmission in relation to duration of attachment by Ixodes scapularis ticks." Ticks and Tick-Borne Diseases, March 2018. DOI: 10.1016/j.ttbdis.2018.01.002
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