It is tick season again, and this year the little buggers are out in force. According to Cornell University wildlife expert Paul Curtis, this year's early spring means more ticks and potentially higher numbers of Lyme Disease cases.
Staying tick-free and disease-free takes a little effort, but it's well worth it. Let's review the fundamentals of antitick warfare, shall we? Let's consider 3 main ideas: tick removal, protective clothing and chemical weapons.
The most important thing is to detect and remove ticks promptly! Many studies confirm that the longer a tick is attached to the skin, the greater the chance of it passing on disease. If you detect and remove ticks within approximately 24 hours, they have little chance of infecting you.
A proper "tick check" is a full-body scan, clothing removed, paying particular attention to the scalp, armpits, groin, etc. as hair may hide ticks quite well. When traveling outdoors with your children or pets, you must inspect them too. Tick bites are painless and most people are unaware of attached ticks until they deliberately look for them.
Crawling ticks, i.e. non-embedded, can be removed from your skin and clothing with duct tape. Advantages: You can remove vast numbers of ticks quickly, and you can watch them squirm. Embedded ticks must be removed with tweezers. Grasp the head and pull gently backwards—don't twist or wiggle or jerk the tick.
Once removed, you may choose to save the tick for testing later, preserving it in a crush-proof plastic container. Or you might just kill it. Monitor your skin for the red, "bull's eye" rash which might appear 1 to 30 days later if you've been given a pathogen. If the rash appears, or if you experience flu-like symptoms either with a rash or without one, go see a doctor.
Ticks do not fall from trees, nor do they fly, nor jump. They crawl up on you from their homes in tall grass and leaf piles and such. Give yourself a fighting chance by wearing closed-toed shoes or better yet boots, and tucking your pants into your socks.
Light-colored clothing makes ticks easier to see as they crawl up your legs toward your waist, where you should also have tucked in your shirt, which is long-sleeved. This leaves only your hands and head exposed. Put on a hat! Tightly-woven fabrics (nylon and friends) make a difficult-to-grasp surface for ticks, and may be better choices than cotton or wool.
Safe, affordable, proven-effective chemicals exist to repel and kill ticks. Favorites include DEET, picaridin and permethrin. DEET is an EPA- and CDC-approved repellent that can be applied to skin and clothing, but not plastics. (Take care with nylon clothing and tents—DEET will dissolve the fabric!) Lower concentrations of DEET are safe and effective, and using greater than 35% DEET is never necessary. Do not eat DEET or spray it in your eyes.
Picaridin is also a CDC-approved repellent and—bonus—it won't chew through nylon. Studies show it is superior to DEET for ticks. (It's about as effective as DEET for mosquitos and other pests.) Use it like DEET.
Permethrin is a pesticide that should be applied to clothing, not skin. You can buy pretreated clothing, spray-on solutions and soak-in treatment for larger items or multiple pieces of clothing at once. Follow the instructions on the label and, again, do not eat this substance or apply it to your mucous membranes. Best strategy: combine permethrin-treated clothing with DEET or picaridin on your skin.
And that's it. Check for ticks and remove them promptly, tuck in your trousers, use sensible repellents and pesticides, and have fun this summer!
To learn more about wilderness medicine, sign up for a course with me at the WMI of NOLS. For more information (much, much more!) about ticks, check out the CDC's excellent report, The Tick Management Handbook.