Just when you thought that the colder fall weather would bring an end to the summer tick season, much as it does to mosquitoes and their bites at the first fall frost, think again. Thanks to a protein in their bodies that works much like the antifreeze in your car, ticks survive cold temperatures remarkably well, even into the winter months. They can be found ready to bite you whenever the temperature is above freezing and the ground is not frozen or covered with snow.
YEAR ROUND PROBLEM COAST TO COAST
Ticks have become a year-round problem affecting every family from the east coast to the west coast, from north to south, for a variety of reasons. Quite simply, there just are so many more ticks in our surroundings than there were ever before. And though the biting ticks you find in the fall and winter months differ from the ones you find in spring and summer, they can make you just as sick with Lyme disease or any number of other tick-borne diseases if you are on the receiving end of their bite.
In the spring and summer months, depending on which part of the country you live in, you generally have to deal with a variety of ticks including deer ticks, Western blacklegged ticks, American dog ticks, brown dog ticks, Lone Star ticks, Gulf Coast ticks, Rocky Mountain wood ticks, or Pacific Coast ticks. But come the fall and winter months, some of these tick species become inactive for a period of time until the warmer temperatures of spring return. However, those that do remain thru the colder months are no less dangerous than the warmer weather ticks in how very ill they can make you. These cold-weather ticks include the well-known deer tick if you live in the eastern two thirds of the country, and the brown dog tick, Western blacklegged tick, or Pacific Coast tick if you live in the western third of the country.
The only upside to this seemingly never-ending tick dilemma is that these remaining cold-weather ticks are usually the adults, and because they are bigger (about the size of a sesame seed) than the immature stages of ticks, they are somewhat more easily detected when crawling on you.
ENJOYING THE GREAT OUTDOOR – A CATCH-22
How do you enjoy being outside whether in your backyard, playing sports, or just plain any outdoor event, when the reality is that you have to be continually on your guard against ticks? You are likely to find numerous ticks in the woods, fields, parks, along the edge line of the woods, near stone walls, on tree stumps and logs, in leaf litter and brush, along hiking and walking trails, golf courses (especially in the rough), in dog parks, and any high shrub and grassy areas.
Avoiding these hidden dangers is key to preventing getting bitten by a tick and becoming infected with a tick-borne disease. But if you cannot avoid these risky tick infested areas, there are certain prevention measures you can take to better protect yourself and your family.
PERSONAL PROTECTION AND PREVENTION
At the end of outdoor activities or certainly by the end of the day, you should conduct full body tick checks of yourself and family members who go outside. Be sure to check some of those places you are more likely to find ticks – those more moist parts of your body between your toes, behind your knees, in the navel, groin area, on your back, under your arms, back of neck, behind and in your ears, within body or neck skin folds, or on your scalp. You can never check too often, as ticks can be very hard to find.
When your children play outdoors where there are likely to be ticks, it is strongly recommended that they wear tick repellent clothing, and a tick repellent (specific for ticks) on their exposed skin. Wearing a tick repellent on your exposed skin will provide added protection, but, by itself, does not work as effectively as tick repellent clothing.
Some simple prevention measures which are highly recommended for you and your family to follow include:
- Avoid areas where there are ticks to the maximum extent possible. This is much easier said than done, but is so very important and well worth the effort.
- When outside, wear clothing that is treated with the synthetic chemical permethrin. Permethrin, which is used in lice shampoos, is an insecticide which repels and kills ticks and which has been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as safe for use on clothing apparel worn by adults and children. You can treat your own clothing and footwear with it. It is easy to spray your clothes yourself, and it will be effective in repelling ticks for 5 or 6 machine washings before it loses its tick repelling effectiveness.
You can also purchase pre-treated clothing with the proprietary Insect Shield label from suppliers such as: REI, ExOfficio, Orvis, etc. Insect Shield developed the methodology, tested over many years and approved by the EPA in 2003, for safely bonding permethrin with clothing fabrics whereby the clothing becomes the delivery system for the tick repellent.
Once per month you should also spray outdoor shoes, athletic gear, tennis bags, back packs, camping gear (anything that could end up on the ground outside) with permethrin to keep the ticks away.
- If you do not choose to treat the clothing with permethrin yourself, you can also send it to be treated at the Insect Shield facility in Greensboro, North Carolina. It will come back, looking the same as you sent it, but with the permethrin protection bonded to the fabric and good for more than 70 washings.
- Wear an EPA approved tick repellent on your exposed skin. The tick repellent must say on the container that it repels ticks and for how long. You can buy tick repellents with chemicals such as IR3535, Picaridin, and DEET in them; or if you prefer using organics, try essential oils like Lemon Eucalyptus Oil and Cedar Oil.
- Keep your outside clothes outside your home. There can be ticks on the clothing from outdoor activities. As soon as your children come in from outdoors, put their clothes in a separate hamper in the mudroom or garage if possible. Then as soon as you can, put their clothes in the clothes dryer on high heat for 20 to 30 minutes. The dry heat will effectively kill any ticks that may be on them. Please note that washing the clothes in a clothes washing machine on high water temperature will not kill ticks.
- As hard-hearted as this may seem, do not allow any pets, which go outside, to sleep with your children or allow your pets on couches, etc. that family members may sit on. They can bring ticks into your home, which can get transferred to anyone who comes in contact directly with them or the furniture they lie on.
- Treat your pets with tick repellent products as recommended by your veterinarian, and check them for ticks when they come in from outdoors.
- Conduct full body tick checks of family members who go outside, both when they return indoors as well as at night before they go to bed. You can never check too often, as ticks can be very hard to find.
REMOVING DEER TICKS
Removing deer ticks promptly can prevent the transmission of Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases. Different types of ticks carry different disease organisms, and there are labs in this country where the tick can be mailed which will identify the tick for you and test it to see if it is carrying pathogens which you may have been infected with.
If you discover a tick attached to you, it must be removed as soon as possible and you should seek the immediate assistance of your health care provider for advice on whether prophylactic medical treatment is warranted.
To remove a tick, use fine-pointed tweezers or other tick removal tools and grab the tick as close to the skin as possible. Ticks do not have heads, so only its mouthparts will be inserted into your skin. Because different types of ticks have mouthparts of different lengths, some ticks are easier to pull out than others, i.e., a dog tick is easier to remove than a deer tick. No matter what kind of tick, its engorged body will be on the outside of your skin. Pull the tick straight out, taking care not to twist or squish the attached body of the tick. Finally, wash the bite site and apply an antiseptic. Save the tick, dead or alive, in a zip lock bag for future identification and testing for possible disease organisms. Different types of ticks carry different disease organisms, and there are labs in numerous states across the country where the tick can be mailed which will identify the tick for you and test it to see if it is carrying pathogens which you may have been infected with.
If you follow the above preventive measures, and use good common sense when taking part in outdoor cold weather activities, you can make your family safer from tick bites and the very serious diseases they can infect your family with.
Bob Oley PE, MSPH is a Public Health Consultant, Lyme and Tick-Borne Disease Prevention Expert.