It’s May, and that means warmer weather (we hope!), spring gardening...and ticks. On Thursdays this month, Taylor Quimby, host of the NHPR podcast Patient Zero, is bringing us straightforward advice on tick-borne disease. This time, how NOT to get bitten by a tick.
With so many activities off-limits, New Englanders are increasingly looking for safe ways to shed their cabin fever and enjoy the great outdoors. But stay-at-home orders still in place means hiking locally, which helps you avoid crowds but also increases your risk of getting something else.
Kirby Stafford, Connecticut’s state entomologist, says, “Keep your social distance, but don’t pick up ticks.”
Stafford is the primary author of the Tick Management Handbook, from the Connecticut Agricultural Experimentation Station, a free handbook filled with practical advice on how to avoid tick-borne disease.
Lyme disease is just one of the illnesses spread to humans through the bite of the black-legged tick, sometimes referred to as a deer tick: others include anaplasmosis and babesiosis.
And contrary to what you might think, you don’t have to go deep in the woods to be at risk.
While ticks can be picked up on a faraway trail, Kirby says most people in Lyme-endemic states pick them up closer to home. He conducted a survey that revealed that about three-quarters of ticks submitted to the station were found during common backyard activities like gardening, yard-work, and playing in the backyard.
That’s why tick-borne disease prevention starts at the sock drawer.
Classic tick advice: wear light-colored pants, and nothing too loose.
Maria Diuk-Wasser is a disease ecologist at Columbia University who studies how the environment affects disease risk.
“Clothes have to be tight,” she says. “Socks over the pants.”
You can also tuck in your top and wear long sleeves, but if you’re just sipping some iced tea on the back patio, some might consider that overkill.
“Ticks don’t fly, they don’t jump, and they’re not dropping from trees,” says Kirby Stafford. “You’re picking them up at the very lower vegetation.”
Either way, your clothes are part of the essential PPE of tick-borne disease, especially if you’re working in the garden or doing yardwork.
For kids, parents may be weighing their options differently - long pants and shirts can be a hard pill to swallow for backyard play on a hot July day.
Keep in mind that you tend to find ticks where their small rodent hosts thrive: the edges of the yard where it meets the forest, along stone walls, and among shrubbery. They’re not likely to do well in the middle of a sunny manicured lawn.
So, clothing can be adjusted based on risk. If kids are playing on a swing set that’s been placed away from the edges of the yard, maybe normal outdoor play clothes are okay. If youngsters are likely to wander into the woods, pants and long-sleeves are probably the way to go.
Proper clothing should be used in conjunction with a tick repellant. Many of those that work for other insects work for ticks as well.
There are the skin-based repellents: DEET, Picaridin, and Oil of lemon eucalyptus are all approved for use by the EPA.
But Maria Diuk-Wasser and Kirby Stafford both like to use something called Permethrin - a chemical sometimes used in malaria bed nets. Permethrin goes on your clothes rather than on your skin. The advantage of a clothing-based repellant like permethrin is that you don’t have to apply it every time you go outside. It comes in a spray can, and can be purchased at sporting good stores.
“The advantage of that is that it will stay in the fibers of your clothes,” Maria Diuk-Wasser says, “and so even if you wash your clothes it stays there.”
Kirby Stafford suggests having permethrin treated clothes on standby for high-risk outdoor activities like yardwork or gardening. When you come inside, put them in the dyer on high heat - studies show that heat will kill ticks in a matter of minutes. Then hop in the shower, and do the most important part of tick prevention there is - a tick check.
No matter what steps you take, all you can do is lower your risk. Because no matter what you do, Kirby Stafford says, “It only takes one, if you don’t find it and it’s infected.”
So at least every evening, and perhaps multiple times a day depending on your outdoor activities, you should perform a full-body tick check. Ticks live on low vegetation but they do crawl pretty quickly, so be sure to check tucked away areas, like your neck, scalp, armpits, and in your underwear.
Adult ticks are the easiest to find, but what you really need to be on the lookout for are the ticks in the nymphal stage. Unfortunately, they are also really hard to see, being just the size of a poppy-seed. These ticks are most abundant in May, June, July, and through parts of August.
You should also be checking your pets, which can bring ticks into the house as well.
There are a number of other things you can do to try and reduce your local exposure to ticks. There are tick-tubes, small tubes that attract mice and rodents and treat them with permethrin as they pass through, killing off the parasitic ticks feeding on them.
There are, of course, commercial sprays as well, too many to name and too many to study thoroughly.
“It’s hard for us researchers to keep up screening these compounds,” Kirby Stafford says. “But there has been some work done, and like I said, there’s a few that work.”
For some tick-control products, studies show a limited effect: reducing ticks, but not to a significant degree. Some have not been properly studied. Still other methods reduce ticks, but have environmental drawbacks.
You can find more information on these tick-control measures in Kirby Stafford's Tick Management Handbook. Physical copies are currently out of stock, but a free PDF is available at The Connecticut Agricultural Experimentation Station’s website.
There are also other simple tips that can be found on the CDC’s website, like:
- Place a 3-ft wide barrier of wood chips or gravel between lawns and wooded areas and around patios and play equipment.
- Stack wood neatly and in a dry area
- Keep playground equipment, decks, and patios away from yard edges and trees, and place them in a sunny location, if possible.
If this stuff seems too basic, just remember that slowing a disease can be as simple as washing your hands… or in this case, by thoroughly checking your armpits and bellybutton for ticks every day. This advice comes from authorities with a lot of personal experience.
“I can tell you after over 30 years, I’ve had very few tick bites,” Kirby says. “And I haven’t gotten Lyme disease yet.”
To learn more about Lyme disease, listen to more Patient zero - you’ll find it wherever you get your podcasts.