There were still patches of snow in the woods when I found my first tick of the year crawling on my jeans. It was a tiny creature, no bigger than an apple seed, but its slow, deliberate crawl up my thigh put a fear in me that no other animal in Maine can.
Fortunately, despite all the time I spend outdoors, I’ve only found a tick burrowed into my skin once, and I’ve never, to my knowledge, been infected with a tick-borne disease. Nevertheless, I’ve been finding these dangerous pests more often as they become more numerous and widespread in Maine. But I’ve decided that while ticks terrify me, I won’t let them scare me indoors.
In recent years, during public presentations I’ve given on hiking and other outdoor topics, people often ask me what I do to protect myself against ticks. It’s clear to me that it’s a major concern for Maine residents — and for good reason. I’ve heard several horror stories about people who have battled Lyme disease. Some of those people are my close relations and friends.
So — as tick season gets into full swing here in Maine, I thought it would be helpful for me to share what I’ve learned in recent years about tick defense. These are protection methods I’ve gathered from researching and writing several stories about ticks for the BDN, then tested while tramping around in the wilderness.
While most of these tips are for protection against all species ticks in Maine, you’ll notice I mention the deer tick (also known as the blacklegged tick) several times. That’s because this particular tick species, so far, has been the cause of the most tick-borne diseases in Maine people. The deer tick can carry Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, babesiosis and other less common pathogens including Powassan virus. However, other tick species are becoming more common in the Northeast, and some of these species can transmit serious diseases. To learn about these other tick species, check out the story I recently wrote about what tick experts are saying about this tick season and the future of ticks in Maine.
Now, let’s get into way to protect yourself.
Avoid ticks altogether
While ticks can be found in a wide variety of outdoor spaces, they’re more numerous is certain regions of Maine and in certain habitats. They’re also more active during specific times of year and even during different weather conditions. This knowledge can help you avoid ticks, to a degree, without simply remaining indoors.
In Maine, deer ticks are currently more numerous along the coast and in the south, dropping in number as you move inland and north. That being said, Lyme disease has been diagnosed in every single county of the state, so no matter where you go, there’s still a chance you could pick up a deer tick.
Regardless of where you are in the state, ticks tend to be more numerous in the forest, tall grass and underbrush. That’s because thick vegetation shelters these pests from the sun, which can dry them out. Ticks also use the vegetation as a place to perch while waiting for their next meal to walk by. Up off the ground, it’s easier for them to snag the fur of a passing deer or the clothing of a passing person.
Therefore, to avoid ticks, refrain from bushwhacking and wading through fields. Instead, stick to well-maintained trails, mowed lawns and rocky surfaces. And since ticks also seek shelter under leaf litter, try to avoid sitting on the forest floor. Wait to rest on a bench, log, beach or bald summit.
This also ties into tick management at your home. One of the best ways of reducing the number of ticks on a property is by removing prime tick habitat. You can do this by keeping your lawn cut short, removing leaf litter and other debris, stacking wood away from the house and even creating a gravel border around high traffic areas, such as a swing set.
When it comes to avoiding ticks, timing can also make a difference. In Maine, deer ticks tend to be more active in the spring and fall than they are in the middle of the summer. Again, this is because this particular species of tick can easily dry out in dry, hot weather. During sunny summer days, they often hide away. That being said, there are still plenty of ticks out and about during the summer, and people can even find them on mild winter days. Ticks are capable of being active when temperatures reach above freezing, and on especially hot days, they may just be waiting for you in the shade.
Certain clothing can help
When the weather is warm, I like to hike in shorts, but I’ve been forced to rethink my outdoor wardrobe as the tick problem has worsened here in Maine. Wearing pants rather than shorts can help keep ticks off your skin. However, those pants have to be either tight around the ankles or tucked into your socks, otherwise ticks can just crawl under them. Furthermore, ticks are easier to spot on light-colored pants than on dark. It may also be helpful to tuck in your shirt.
In addition, more and more outdoor brands are offering tick-repellent clothes. These garments are made from fabric that’s been treated with permethrin, an EPA-registered chemical that effectively repels ticks and mosquitoes, according to several studies, including a 1998 study that found that U.S. soldiers wearing permethrin-treated clothing picked up 98 percent fewer ticks than soldiers wearing untreated clothing.
Insect Shield is one of the better-known creators of this permethrin-treated fabric. Based in North Carolina, the company binds a proprietary permethrin formula to fabric fibers through a process that ensures this repellent lasts up to 70 launderings. The company has its own line of tick-repellent clothing, partners with top outdoor brands such as Orvis and Royal Robbins, and offers a service in which the everyday person can send in their outdoor garments to receive the Insect Shield treatment.
Permethrin can also be purchased as a spray at many retail stores (such as outfitters and hardware stores) and applied to clothing, shoes and gear. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests purchasing a product containing 0.5 percent permethrin and to carefully read and follow the directions on the bottle — as you should with any pesticide. This chemical should not come into contact with your skin or be inhaled. The instructions will also specify how long you need to wait for the chemical to dry and bind to the fabric before wearing the clothing, as well as how long the effectiveness of the chemical will last. Usually, applied like this, the effectiveness of the chemical only lasts for a few weeks or a handful of wash cycles. That’s why the specially-treated clothing, such as clothing treated by Insect Shield, has value.
Skin-applied tick repellents
There are currently 629 skin-applied repellent products registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to repel ticks. The majority of these products contain DEET, a well-known but controversial synthetic chemical that’s been used for decades to repel biting insects. Other active ingredients in these tick repellents are picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD) and 2-undecanone.
Picaridin and IR3535 are both synthetic chemicals. The other three ingredients are derived from natural sources. Oil of lemon eucalyptus is just as its name states: oil from a lemon eucalyptus plant. Para-menthane-diol is a chemical derived from eucalyptus plants. And 2-undecanone is an organic compound that can be extracted from a wild tomato plant but is often synthetically made.
Opinions are mixed about the effectiveness of natural skin-applied repellents for ticks, but it’s certainly an area of ongoing research. Nootkatone, a compound derived from essential oils of Alaska yellow cedar trees, some herbs and citrus fruits, is currently being reviewed by the EPA for registration as an effective tick repellent. In addition, companies are making products advertised as tick repellents that contain mixes of various essential oils, but these ingredients are not regulated or tested by the EPA.
How to conduct a tick check
Checking your body for ticks after spending time outside is crucial. There are multiple online resources that offer tips about conducting tick checks, including the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Tick Lab.
After spending time outside, I suggest conducting one tick check, to the best of your ability, before you even step inside a building or car, that way you don’t track them inside. Then, when you have privacy, conduct a thorough, full body tick check by touch and sight. To do this, you can use a hand-held or full-length mirror to view all parts of your body, or you can enlist a person (with whom you’re very comfortable) to help. I also suggest taking a shower after coming indoors. This can dislodge any unattached ticks, but beware, they may just scuttle about in the bottom of the shower unless you dispose of them. Ticks are tough to drown.
Hot spots for finding ticks, according to the CDC, are under the arms, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, behind the knees, between the legs and around the waist. In addition, ticks are often found along the hairline and around the ankles, according to Maine’s CDC. But ticks will bite just about anywhere. I once found three ticks crawling up my back — and nowhere else. And the one time I found a tick embedded in my skin, it was on the back of my arm, near my shoulder.
Once, after conducting a thorough tick check, I was looking in a mirror when I watched a tick crawl out of my hair and across my forehead. For this reason, if I’ve been in an especially “ticky” area, I tend to wait a few hours and check my body a second time for ticks. And if a “mole” appears to be migrating, you may want to give it a second look.
In addition to checking yourself for ticks, you’ll need to check your children and pets. Cats and dogs can become infected by Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases. They can also track ticks indoors, where they might find you. (I found the tick embedded in my arm after sleeping with my dog Oreo.)
Ticks can also hide in your clothes and shoes. Once, after a walk through a grassland in southern Maine, I found a number of ticks hiding in the folds of my boot tongues. To get rid of ticks on your clothing, the UMaine Tick Lab suggests placing them in the dryer on high heat for 10 to 20 minutes. This will cause the ticks to dry out and die.
What to do with a tick
If you find a tick embedded in your skin, remove it as soon as possible. The longer a tick remains attached, the more likely it is to transmit any disease it may carry. The CDC states that in most cases, a tick must be attached for 36 hours or more before the Lyme disease bacterium can be transmitted.
Over the years, people have come up with some pretty interesting ways of removing ticks, and some of those techniques could actually cause more harm than good. For example, I’ve heard that some people remove ticks by placing a hot match against them. Unfortunately, this could cause the tick to regurgitate into the bite wound, upping your chance of contracting a disease, according to experts in a BDN story I wrote about tick-related myths.
The best way to remove a tick is by using tweezers or a tick spoon. With either of these tools, grasp the tick as close to your skin as possible. This should mean you’re grasping the tick’s head. If you squeeze its belly, you could push the contents of its stomach into your skin, increasing your risk of infection, according to the Maine CDC.
Once you have a good hold on the tick’s head, pull slowly but firmly away until it releases. Don’t twist or jerk the tick because this can cause its mouth parts to break off and remain in your skin. However, if this happens, it’s not a big deal. You can either remove the mouth parts with tweezers, or you can wait for your body to expel the mouth parts like a splinter. No longer attached to the tick’s body, the mouth parts cannot transmit pathogens, according to the Maine CDC.
After removing the tick, you can kill it by putting it in rubbing alcohol, which will dry it out, or you can place it in a ziplock bag and freeze it. It may be tempting to smash the tick, but if its body pops and any of the contents get into a cut on your hand or elsewhere, you could become infected with a disease it carries. So why risk it?
Thoroughly clean the bite area, your hands and the tweezers with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water.
If you want, you can send the tick specimen in for free identification at the Tick Lab at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Pest Management Unit in Orono. To date, 16 species of ticks have been identified in Maine. The American dog tick and the deer tick are the most common species in the state to bite humans. Each tick species is capable of carrying only certain diseases.
If the specimen you send in is a deer tick, you can take your investigation one step further and pay $15 for the lab to conduct a DNA test that detects the presence of the organisms that cause three diseases that particularly dangerous species is known to carry: Lyme disease, anaplasmosis and babesiosis.
Even if it’s determined that your tick specimen carries one (or multiple) of these pathogens, there’s still a good chance that you were not infected, especially if the tick wasn’t attached to you for long. The test is a diagnosis for the tick, not you.
If you’re concerned that you might have a tick-borne disease, visit your doctor. There are blood tests you can take that can detect certain tick-borne diseases. In addition, monitor your health for symptoms of tick-borne diseases. Lyme disease, for instance, often produces flu-like symptoms and a bull’s-eye shaped rash around the bite location — but not always. Work with your doctor to learn about potential symptoms and treatments. Usually tick-borne diseases are treated with a regimen of antibiotics. There’s also a wide variety of alternative medicinal treatments and therapies for these increasingly common diseases.
There’s so much learn about ticks. It’s impossible to fit everything about tick defense into one post. I’m sure I’ve missed a few things. So please, feel free to share knowledge you have about tick defense in the comment section below. What’s worked for you? What hasn’t worked? Let’s share some tips and get outside.