How to Prevent Ticks and Still Enjoy the Outdoors

By Richard J. Dolesh | Posted on July 9, 2018

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Not long ago my youngest son and my wife’s cousin were bit by lone star ticks, an aggressive but easily-identified species due to the conspicuous white dot on the back shield of the female. This led me to do a deeper dive on what the best tick repellents are and how to use them. This blog post is intended to give you some facts on how to avoid ticks in the first place, and some measures you can take to prevent them from attaching to you. 

Ticks have been a health concern in recent years because of the increasing likelihood that they can carry organisms that can infect humans with any number of nasty diseases including Lyme disease, Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness (STARI), Powassan, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and other really awful diseases and conditions you don’t want to get — ever. STARI, for example, can produce a lifelong allergic reaction to red-meat. This is not a joke. If you contract it, you’ll never be able to eat a burger or steak again.

There are about 80 species of hard-shelled ticks in the U.S., but only about a dozen are of major concern for humans and pets. The most reported ticks to TickEncounter Resource Center, the University of Rhode Island’s excellent tick information site, are blacklegged (deer) ticks, American dog ticks, lone star ticks, brown dog ticks, western-blacklegged ticks and Rocky Mountain wood ticks. 

Ticks are an outdoor hazard with perhaps one of the highest yuck factors of any biting or stinging insect in nature. After hatching from eggs, and in each successive stage of their lives, they must attach to a warm-blooded animal, such as a deer or dog or mouse, and feed on their blood. During these stages of larva, nymph and adult, feeding ticks can pick up disease-causing organisms, drop off, and find a new host. Diseases are transmitted through their saliva which is why you want to avoid having them attach and feed at all. In the final stage as adults, ticks will feed and then drop off and lay up to several thousand eggs, whereupon the cycle begins again.

Just thinking about it is enough to make anyone considering taking a hike through the woods to say, ”Give me the controller—let’s see what’s on tv.”

So, yes, ticks may be gross beyond words, but there are some defensive actions that you can take that can kill them or deter them before they attach to you. 

I put together this brief summary with some links in hopes that it will help prevent you, your kids and your pets from getting ticks attached to you this summer and fall. This is not medical advice and not veterinary advice, just some observations based on many years of experience outdoors and some research on the best repellents and deterrents.

The bad news is that vector-borne diseases transmitted by insect parasites, including ticks, are up by more than 300 percent in a little more than 10 years according to the CDC. The good news is that there is one tick repellent, Permethrin, that offers outstanding protection when sprayed on clothes and shoes and it is easy to use.

While DEET is the active chemical in most spray or spread-on-skin repellents for mosquitoes and ticks, many people don’t like to use it because of its objectionable properties, namely the potential health effects from higher concentrations of DEET (more than 20 percent concentration) and that it may irritate skin and stain certain fabrics and surfaces. Also, there are questions about its use on children. There are other, safer alternatives such as oil of lemon eucalyptus, particularly in the repellent REPEL, which was recently ranked just as effective as DEET in a Consumer Reports study. There are other non-DEET options as well, but all work for shorter periods of time and some are less effective than DEET or oil of lemon eucalyptus.

But, spray-on repellents may not work as effectively for ticks which, depending on where they get onto your body, can crawl around and may avoid the repellent you apply. The insecticide Permethrin, which is sprayed ONLY on clothes, socks and shoes, NOT skin, does repel ticks effectively, and it will last through 4-6 washings of clothes. A University of Rhode Island study found that persons wearing shoes and socks treated with permethrin were 74 times less likely to have a tick bite than those not wearing treated shoes and socks.

There are several vendors for Permethrin — use any search engine to find them. One that is highly rated is Sawyer. There are also companies that will pre-treat your own clothing if you mail it to them, and it is good for up to 70 washings.

Of course, prevention of tick bites by repellents can only be effective in combination with other measures, such as inspecting yourself, your family members and your pets for ticks that may be crawling on you or have already attached. Yeah, I know — yuck. But, if you spend time outdoors, this is what you have to do if you want to prevent tick bites and potential transmission of disease.

Some of the best advice I can give is to be alert for where you might get a tick on you. Ticks don’t lie in wait and then jump on you like some super flea. They are more likely to get on you as you walk through taller grass or in leaf-litter in forests, or as you brush against the leaves of hanging tree branches as you walk through a wooded area. So, stay out of tall grass if you can find a route around it, and check yourself as soon as you finish walking through tall grass or low-hanging trees in forested areas. This applies to dogs, too — be alert to the kind of places they run and check them frequently when you return home. Don’t depend solely on chemical repellents.

There are other simple things you can do to measurably reduce the odds of having a tick attach to you. However, many of the recommendations you might come across on how to prevent ticks say, “tuck your pants into your socks…” Such recommendations, unfortunately, first assume you are wearing socks, and secondly, that you want to look like a dork as you hike around. 

But there are simple things you can do that are good prevention — wear a hat, preferably with a brim, for one. Many ticks wait to drop off or catch a ride on hosts by waiting on tree leaves or branches, “questing” as the entomologists say, where they might latch on to you when you walk under them and brush leaves back — and yes, they can immediately determine you are a suitable warm-blooded host that might give a great blood meal. Wear long-sleeved shirts if it is not unbearably hot, and wear light-colored clothing to more easily spot any ticks that climb on.

Beyond personal protections, Permethrin can be sprayed in yards, in gardens and around homes for landscape-scale control of ticks, but it is important not to use the formulations used for treating clothes on your yard. Each formulation is different, and you must use the correct product for the right application.

There are biological control agents that show great promise for tick control. Nematodes, which are tiny unsegmented microscopic roundworms that reside in the soil, are deadly to ticks but harmless to humans, pets and pollinators. They can be applied with a garden hose sprayer and have the added advantage of controlling certain other noxious insects as well. Not cheap, but reasonable for treating relatively small spaces.

A more in-depth review of tick prevention strategies and repellents can be found here.

And for general tick info and tick-borne disease information, including how to remove attached ticks, see CDC’s webpages.

The bottom line is that you don’t have to be fearful about going outdoors and having fun. You can go anywhere in nature without unreasonable fears. Yes, ticks are out there, and yes, you need to be aware of them when you are in their habitat, but you can avoid them by taking precautions and being alert to the hazard. Go outdoors, have fun!

Richard J. Dolesh is NRPA’s Vice President of Strategic Initiatives.