The best possible way to avoid getting infected with Lyme disease is to stay away from ticks. Ticks live in shady, moist, forested areas, in tall grass, and on shrubs. They also live on piles of wet, cut wood, and damp, old stone walls. There, they hang around waiting to attach themselves to a host, such as a deer or humans, for a blood meal. If left undisturbed, ticks stay on their host for days, swelling up with their host’s blood as they feed. Ick!
Ticks can’t jump or fly — humans or animals must brush against them for them to attach. You could just avoid all woods and grassy fields, but who wants to spend their lives indoors, or only walking on concrete city streets? Here are some common-sense tools for tick prevention for humans. You can use them to continue hiking and exploring the great outdoors while keeping yourself and your kids safe from exposure to tick bites and Lyme disease.
Know Which Ticks Cause Lyme Disease
Know your ticks! There are several kinds of ticks out there, and not all of them transmit Lyme disease. Lyme is carried by deer ticks (or black-legged ticks), in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and North-Central United States. Along the Pacific Coast, Lyme is carried by the western black-legged tick. These ticks transmit Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme, and other coinfections through their saliva when they bite. Unfortunately, black-legged ticks are tiny, especially their nymphs (babies), who also transmit Lyme. Black-legged nymph ticks measure less than 2mm — about the size of the head of a pin.
A tick must be on the body for 36 hours in order to transmit Borrelia and co-infections, states the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, there are a few discrepancies with this statistic. For instance, the minimum amount of time a tick needs to be attached to transmit Lyme disease has never accurately been established. Plus, incidences of Lyme disease transmission have been reported with ticks attached for less than six hours. To add to that, the transmission of coinfection like Ehrlichia, Mycoplasma, Anaplasmosis, Bartonella, and Babesia may occur at much faster rates.
I’m a prime example: I was bitten by a western black-legged nymph tick, and it was not on my body long enough to swell up at all. It was minuscule when I found it, like a tiny poppy seed embedded in my belly. The only reason I caught it was because I ran my hand over my belly and felt an odd tiny bump. If I had seen it on a child, I would have thought it was a small mole.
While bushwhacking through the woods may be adventurous, it comes with the risk of encountering ticks. Lyme disease has spread throughout the United States at this point, and Lyme disease symptoms can be brutal — so, it might be worth giving up off-trail exploration and staying on paths while hiking. If you remain in the middle of the path, you’re more likely to avoid brushing up against grasses, shrubs, and branches that could be a habitat for ticks.
Wear Protective Clothing
Though it’s not the cutest, tucking long pants into socks is a terrific way to prevent ticks from getting to your skin. Typically, ticks climb onto ankles and legs first, then crawl up looking for a good place to hide. If you wear light-colored clothing, it’s easier to spot ticks and get rid of them before they bite. Long sleeves also offer good protection.
Use Tick Repellant
Spray your clothing and your skin with tick repellant before you go hiking, and reapply as needed. DEET and permethrin are effective chemical repellents. Deet can be applied on the skin, but permethrin should only be used on clothing. Also, you can buy clothing that is pre-treated with permethrin at most sporting goods stores and online retailers.
If you’d rather choose toxin-free tick repellant on your skin, some essential oils are very effective. I make my own essential oil spray from citronella, lavender, and rosemary. Other effective oils are eucalyptus, rose geranium, and lemongrass. If you use essential oils, be aware that they wear off more quickly than the chemical sprays. I reapply my essential oil spray every hour when my family is outdoors.
Check Yourself and Your Kids for Ticks
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When you come home from a lovely day outdoors, remember to check yourself and your kids (and your pets) for ticks. Ticks like to hide in warm, dark places, so be sure to check between toes and fingers, around the groin and armpits, inside the ears, and on the scalp. Run your hands over your skin, feeling for tiny bumps. To be especially careful, use a fine-toothed comb made for lice eggs to check hair.
Take a shower to wash any remaining hidden critters away. Throw your family’s clothes in the wash and dry them on high heat to kill any ticks that may still be crawling about.
How to Remove a Tick
There are a few tricks that can make how to remove a tick a bit easier for you. First, if you find a tick, don’t panic and grab it with your fingers. You need to pull out the whole creature, leaving nothing behind in your body. Instead, use a pair of tweezers. Special tick tweezers can be found online, but regular, good quality tweezers work just fine. Grab the tick as close to your skin as possible, and pull it out slowly.
If you identify the tick as a black-legged tick or nymph, save it in a plastic, zip-lock baggie. You can send the tick to a lab, which will test it for bacteria and co-infections. You can find a great testing resource at Testmytick. Testing your tick will save you time and money in the long run if your tick was infected. If this is the case, get yourself to a Lyme-literate doctor right away. Through the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society (ILADS), you can find a list of Lyme doctors close to you. If Lyme is treated quickly and early, treatment is 80-90% effective.
Hopefully, these tools will keep you safe as you hike and explore the outdoors. An ounce of prevention is indeed worth a pound of cure, or more accurately, thousands of dollars of Lyme disease treatment when the tick-borne infection is in question.
Shona Curley lives and works in San Francisco. She is co-owner of the studio Hasti Pilates, and creator of the website www.redkitemeditations.com. Shona teaches meditation, bodywork and movement practices for healing Lyme disease, chronic illness and pain.
Cook MJ. Lyme borreliosis: a review of data on transmission time after tick attachment. International Journal of General Medicine. 2015; 8: 1–8. doi: 10.2147/IJGM.S73791
Transmission. Centers for Disease Control.
Matchless Strategy for Tick Removal; 6 Steps to Avoid Tick Bites. Harvard Health Publishing.