Worried about ticks? There are good reasons. Ixodes scapularis, the blacklegged or deer tick, transmits Lyme disease, a bacterial infection that can affect the nervous system and joints. But there are a host of other tick-borne diseases as well, and in some cases, they can make you pretty sick.
A study released last week that looked at decades of tick research found that while there’s no silver bullet to protect against tick-borne disease, such as a vaccine, a combination of preventive measures can be quite effective. Most of these methods are fairly easy to do, yet a 2015 national survey found that slightly more than half of respondents reported doing nothing to protect themselves against tick bites.
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April through September is considered the most active season for ticks. Here are the best techniques to avoid getting bitten, according to the new study, tick experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Change your environment: Make your yard less inviting to ticks. For example, keep leaf litter away from your home, and put kids’ play equipment in areas of full sun to discourage ticks from lurking. They prefer shade and cooler areas.
Change your clothing: Ticks live at or near the ground, so shoes, long pants and socks are your first line of defense to prevent them from latching on to you. “I swear, about 90 percent of the people I talk to think ticks fall from trees,” said Holly Gaff, a tick researcher at Old Dominion University.
Tuck your pants into your socks to keep ticks off you, particularly in wooded areas; it’s not very fashion-forward, but it works. Thomas Mather, director of the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Vector-Borne Disease, recommends that people spray or treat their shoes with a repellent.
Permethrin-treated clothing, which the military uses to protect soldiers from all manner of biting insects worldwide, is available online and at many camping stores. Spraying socks, shoes and clothing with the insecticide DEET is also effective, although that treatment will need to be reapplied over the course of the day.
Check your body for ticks: Since no repellent is 100 percent effective, experts say you should always do a visual tick check of your body once you return inside, ideally in a shower. The water will help wash off ticks that haven’t attached to you yet, but you need to look thoroughly, too. Deer ticks are small – the larvae are the size of poppy seeds and like to hide in hard-to-see places, especially around the groin, but also in hair, behind the knees and around the ears. In most case, ticks need to be attached for at least 36 hours before they begin to transmit Lyme disease.
The lesson of the new study, said one of its authors, Lars Eisen, a research entomologist with the CDC’s Division of Vector-Borne Diseases, is that “no single existing method, in the continued absence of a human vaccine for tick bites or Lyme disease, will be sufficient.” But the preventive measures, he said, really do make a difference.