Fact: Nobody likes tick bites. Avoiding tick bites is something that seems like a common sense notion, but in reality avoiding them is growing more and more difficult with every passing year as species and diseases spread in unprecedented numbers. From the classic Lyme disease that may become chronic if not treated promptly, to newly discovered conditions like alpha-gal syndrome (mammal product/meat allergy) that can be induced the moment a tick bites, to acute life-threatening viral infections like Powassan, it seems like every year another reason to prevent tick bites comes to light.
Avoiding tick bites is important for everybody, but particularly so for those that may be dealing with alpha-gal syndrome, or people already fighting off other tick-borne infections. While this definitely falls under the easier-said-than-done category, there are things that can be done to minimize the risk of being bitten.
The really bad news? Only avoiding certain tick species, or relying on daily tick checks after an adventure into their habitat isn’t really cutting it anymore; your safest option now is to avoid getting bit by a tick in the first place.
While scientists haven’t exactly figured out why it is that tick-borne infections – and ticks in general – have become more prevalent, there are a few potential causes at fault here:
- Increasing rodent and deer populations
- Increases in several non-native bird species that frequent bird feeders that host and spread ticks
- Clearing and sculpting of land into fields, yards, and scrublands that support mammal hosts of ticks
- Landscaping trends, water distribution, and sprinkling systems that provide homes to ticks and protect them from drought
These, among many other reasons, are some of the biggest culprits the finger of blame is being pointed at, and unfortunately, many of them are difficult to manage or swing in another direction that would see tick population decreases.
While it’s true that spring and fall are considered the worst times of the year for tick encounters, ticks aren’t particularly seasonally-selective; all it takes for a tick to thrive in the winter is a mildly warm day or a space near a heated structure. Considering this, it’s important that tick prevention precautions are taken at all times.
Adult ticks that were too sluggish in the winter to find winter hosts will find themselves starved and desperate for a new meal come springtime, which then entices them to roam further than they might normally in hopes of finding that delicious new food source.
Fall brings with it thousands of tiny, newly-hatched ticks that flood tick-infested areas set on biting anyone unfortunate enough to wander through. These little ticks often go unseen and can inflict a variety of conditions from birth that ultimately makes them even more dangerous than adults. For those living in areas that are warm year round, the threat of ticks of all ages remains high at nearly all times, with the exception of any periods of drought.
Ticks are usually found near sources of moisture and prefer semi-open woodlands and fields. They will crawl up tall grasses, shrubs, and trees looking for hosts. When an animal or person walks by, the tick will drop from its perch and grab onto them. This results in most ticks landing on feet or ankles, but in some areas, they may fall out of small trees. In such places, a brimmed hat is advisable. Ticks generally climb upward once they land on a host, looking for a spot to attach.
Active hunting ticks will track carbon-dioxide and body heat from stationary targets for many meters, so campsites are at an increased risk.
The first step in avoiding ticks is reducing their numbers around the home. Tick tubes offer a means of targeted tick killing that is both cost-effective and avoids dousing the entire yard in poison. Tick tubes consist of permethrin-treated nesting material that appeals to rodents being placed in a tube. The tube protects the nesting material from rain, keeps pets and birds from getting into the poison, and may trick rodents into believing that they are robbing another nest of prime material. The rodents distribute the permethrin throughout the yard into their own nests that are shared by breeding ticks, devastating the tick population while minimizing the amount of poison needed.
Commercially made tick tubes are available, but you can also make your own. For the tubes, a short length of PVC pipe can be used if you plan to reuse them, or if you’re on a budget, toilet paper rolls work just as well. For the nesting material cotton balls are a good choice, but if you are on a budget, old dryer lint is an option too. To treat the nesting material, heavily spray or dip them in permethrin (fly spray sold for horses or at general outdoors stores) and let dry completely. Permethrin is highly toxic, especially to domestic cats and aquatic wildlife, so be sure to keep the wet product away from pets and children. Once dry it is less dangerous.
The largest factor for keeping tick populations up is humidity, so any high-density plant or shrub can be a haven for them. High-density thorny shrubs such as barberry bushes may also provide shelter and protection from predators for rodents that carry ticks and are associated with higher tick concentrations in woodlands.
Fruiting trees like crab apples and most simple seed bird feeders attract several species of birds and rodents that carry some tick species that may then drop off in that portion of the yard, reinfesting it even if the yard was previously treated. Moving feeders away from traffic paths or changing to hummingbird feeders is advisable if tick populations are out of control.
Mulch and watering systems provide the moisture and protection needed by ticks to hatch eggs and survive off a host, so changing to simplified drought-tolerant landscaping is an option if your yard is artificially watered. Reducing humidity and increasing airflow in the yard can go a long way towards reducing tick numbers.
Permethrin Treated Clothing
For those in the highest risk areas that spend time working in tick-infested areas, factory impregnated permethrin uniforms are recommended for avoiding tick bites. Such clothing is commonly used by wildlife management workers and the military, and works by killing ticks as they attempt to find a place to latch on. However, permethrin does not repel ticks and the ticks must come in contact with the treated clothing for it to have an effect. Such clothing can be purchased at camping and hunting stores and will last against ticks for up to a year.
A more affordable option is a homemade treatment that will last for about 3-4 washings. The most effective areas of clothing to treat, if going minimalistic, are socks, pant cuffs, and footwear. People who wear permethrin-treated socks and footwear are 73.6 times less likely to have a tick bite than those who do not. Permethrin is the best defense for preventing tick bites against more passive tick species such as the black-legged tick. Once you’ve acquired permethrin, simply follow the instructions on the label to treat your clothing.
One popular trick is to treat hair scrunchies and them loops them over ankles when going out.
Remember: permethrin is highly toxic before it dries and should be kept away from waterways. Once permethrin dries, it binds to any surface it is on and become much less dangerous.
In order to provide further protection, it is important to use repellent rather than simply a poison like permethrin – especially when protecting against active hunting species of ticks like the lone star tick. Ticks are harder to repel than mosquitoes, and a number of factors influence how effective a repellent will be. Repellents will not kill ticks, but instead, discourage them from approaching and/or biting. The use of repellents is important for keeping ticks from coming inside on clothing, and from biting in the field as no poison that is safe to use on a person can kill a tick instantly.
Deet and picaridin are the standards in tick repellents, with picaridin lasting somewhat longer than deet for each application, but a number of repellents can work. In studies seeking to understand why performance tests have varied greatly in the past from one study to the next, it has been found that the solvent used can make a big difference. Both deet and picaridin repellents lose effectiveness over time and when used for ticks should be reapplied regularly throughout the day for maximum effect. Deet is vulnerable to water and any water in a formulation or environmental moisture exposure can lower its effectiveness greatly. Both products should be used on exposed skin or on the surface of clothes.
Since lab testing does not always match results seen in the field, it is now thought to be best to look at studies that involve a specific formulation on the market when used in the field rather than simply the listed active ingredient. The EPA has created a website where specific repellents that have provided scientific evidence showing their formulation works are registered which can help with choosing a repellent to fit your specific needs. When applying repellent, most work best on bare skin or on the outside of socks and pant cuffs. Follow the instructions on the specific product for the best results.
Ticks are pesky little creatures, and as time goes on we’re learning that they’re capable of not only expanding in population at an alarming rate, but that they’re also capable of carrying life-altering diseases. It’s important to note that what previous generations may have considered adequate as far as tick management goes is no longer your safest bet; avoiding tick bites, and the multitude of conditions they can carry, is best done by avoiding ticks altogether, and by making sure your immediate surroundings are as far from tick-friendly as they can possibly be.
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