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It's tick season, which means it's time to figure out how to prevent tick bites. These blood-sucking insects live in every state in the U.S., including Hawaii and Alaska, and they spread several devastating diseases including Lyme disease, which infects more than 40,000 Americans a year, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which kills 5% to 10% of patients.
The only way to avoid ticks altogether is to stay indoors at all times, but you can make your yard less attractive to ticks.
When is tick season?
Although ticks are most active in warm months (April to September), ticks don't hibernate; they can bite any time the temperature is above freezing. Northern blacklegged ticks (also known as deer ticks) seek out victims at temperatures as low as 33°F, southern Lone Star ticks start seeking victims at 40°F, and Californian Pacific Coast ticks are active year-round.
That said, ticks are most active during warm months, and they live in areas that have lots of plants—any place grassy, or wooded, or filled with brush. You don't have to go into the woods to pick up a tick: You can get a tick bite in a suburban back yard or a local playground. Ticks can also live on pets that go outside, including dogs, cats, and backyard chickens.
For example, in August in New England, the most active ticks are tiny newly-hatched blacklegged ticks, deer ticks, called larvae. These pinprick-sized ticks stay down in leaf litter, and prefer to latch on to white-footed mice, although any warm-blooded animal will do—and sometimes they'll bite lizards and amphibians, too. Once these lymphs have a blood meal, they drop off their hosts, molt, and do not go questing again until the next spring, when they are called nymphs. Deer tick nymphs are most active in New England from May to August. Once they feed, they molt, and emerge in the fall as adult ticks, which are active from October to May. Nymphs and adult females are most likely to bite, but all deer ticks can spread Lyme disease. Reducing the tall vegetation around your yard, like tall grasses, cuts down on the places where nymphs and adult ticks can go questing.
How to prevent ticks in your yard
You may not be able to eliminate ticks from your yard, but you can reduce the likelihood they'll live there. To make your yard less attractive to ticks, it helps to understand how ticks live. Ticks find new hosts by questing, climbing up grasses or shrubs and dropping onto new hosts for a blood meal. Ticks go questing at different times of year depending on what species they are, what life stage they are in, and how humid it is—ticks try to avoid drying out. Ticks travel down into leaf litter to stay moist, so removing leaf litter and tall plants that shade it makes them more likely to dry out, and cuts down on places where they drop onto new hosts.
Know your enemy
- Check what ticks are active in your area. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) publishes a map of locations of the six species of ticks known to bite humans in the USA—although a new species, the Asian Longhorned tick, is spreading. Contact your local agricultural extension office for the lowdown on what ticks are in your backyard, and how to get rid of them.
Reduce the tick habitat
- Step up your yard maintenance efforts. Ticks need to stay moist to survive; drier conditions are hostile to ticks. So clear tall grasses and brush, trim low-hanging branches from shrubs and trees, mow your lawn, and keep leaves raked.
- Create a physical barrier. Make a barrier of gravel or dry wood chips between the woods and your lawn, as well as between your lawn and your deck, patio, play space, or gardens. Ticks don't like to travel over dry areas.
- Create a chemical barrier. Have a licensed professional pest control applicator either spray or apply granules of insecticide (permethrin or benethrin) along the edges of your yard where grass meets woods. Spraying the lawn isn't necessary, as ticks don't like dry, sunny areas. In the north and midwest, it's most effective to spray for blacklegged or deer ticks twice in the spring when tick nymphs first emerge and once in the fall when the adults come out.
Note that chemical barriers may not be a good option for homes with pets: Permethrin can be toxic to cats.
- Remove places where rodents could nest, like wood piles, brush piles, old upholstered furniture, or mattresses. Seal up crawl spaces and under-stairs areas.
- Move bird feeders away from high-traffic areas. Seeds falling from bird feeders attract rodents.
- Consider using tick tubes, especially if your yard borders dense woods, stone walls, or other rodent-friendly areas. Tick tubes are filled with cotton soaked with permethrin, an insecticide commonly used in tick sprays and clothing that, as we mentioned, can be toxic to pets. White-footed mice carry the cotton back to their nests, where it kills tick nymphs. These tubes seem to be effective in reducing the number of mice carrying Lyme disease.
- If you live in an area with deer, fence your yard to keep deer out and keep pets from coming in contact with deer. While deer tick nymphs are happy to feed on humans, dogs, and other animals, deer are a common host that can carry adult ticks into your yard, and tick larvae that will thrive in mouse nests.
How to keep ticks off
There are two main ways to keep ticks off your body: covering up, and using insecticides made for ticks. No matter how thorough you may be, remember to always check for ticks, too.
- Wear long pants and tuck your pants legs into your socks. No, you won't look remotely fashionable, but socks-in-pants will keep ticks from contacting your skin and biting. Remember, Lyme disease bulls-eye rashes aren't good-looking either, and they last a lot longer.
- Consider wearing clothing that has been pre-treated with the insecticide permethrin. You can buy pre-treated clothing like products made by Insect Shield, or treat your own clothing with special permethrin clothing sprays. The permethrin lasts for several washes, but remember not to let Fluffy sit on your lap while you're wearing permethrin pants.
Insecticides for Ticks
According to the CDC, there are a variety of insecticide ingredients that repel ticks, including DEET, picaridin, IR3535, Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD), and 2-undecanone. To find the best one for you, the Environmental Protection Agency has a helpful repellant search tool. Important: Never use insect repellent on babies younger than 2 months old, and do not use products containing OLE or PMD on children under 3 years old. If you choose DEET, do not use a concentration higher than 10% on children.
How to check for ticks
Ticks like to hide in dark places and skin folds. Remember that ticks can be tiny. Blacklegged or deer tick nymphs can be the size of a poppy seed.
- When you get inside, throw your clothes in the dryer for a cycle on High—the heat kills ticks—and take a shower.
- Check yourself all over, but especially in places where there's a layer of hair or skin that could shelter a tick.
- Popular tick attachment points include: behind your knees, behind your ears, on your scalp, in your groin and pelvic region, under your armpits, under breasts and bra straps, in your belly button, and in overhanging belly skin.
What to do if you have a tick bite
If you get a tick bite, remove the tick as quickly as possible to prevent infection. Just yanking on the tick doesn't work because some ticks get much more strongly attached. Blacklegged or deer ticks drive their mouthparts much deeper into the skin than dog ticks, for example, and also secrete a kind of “cement” that glues them to the host.
Many folk remedies recommend burning ticks with cigarettes or coating them with petroleum jelly or kerosene to make them detach. It's impossible to burn a tiny deer tick nymph—it’s about the size of a poppy seed—without also burning your skin, and it may not detach when it dies, thanks to that cement. And while ticks may eventually detach themselves when you smother them with jelly, it could take a while, and it might still cling to your skin. Your goal is to remove the tick quickly to prevent infection, not wait for the tick to move on.
Here's how to remove a tick safely, adapted from the University of Rhode Island Tick Encounter Resource Center and the CDC.
1. Get a pair of tweezers with thin, pointy tips.
2. Disinfect the tick bite area with rubbing alcohol.
3. Grab the tick close to skin and use a slow, steady motion to pull the tick out. Don't yank or jerk the tick.
4. Disinfect the tick bite again
5. Over the next few weeks, watch for symptoms of tick-borne diseases, including rashes, fevers, and flu-like aches and pains.
Although the Lyme bulls-eye rash is famous, about 30% of people with Lyme disease do not develop a rash. There were more than 40,000 cases of Lyme disease in the U.S. in 2017 alone. Most tick-borne diseases are easily treated with antibiotics if they're caught early. If you develop a “summer cold,” a rash, or other symptoms after a tick bite, consult a medical professional. (Testing ticks isn't recommended, as laboratories don't have consistent standards. Even if a laboratory identifies a disease in the tick, it may not have passed the disease to you.)
Most people enjoy the outdoors and don't catch tick-borne diseases. With a little prevention and planning, you can reduce your exposure to ticks, relax, and think about more important things—like who's going to grill the burgers tonight?