If you live near or often spend time in a wooded area, blood-sucking ticks are part of your world. When tick populations rise in July and August, you’ll again feel those familiar tickling sensations on your legs and neck, and again drag the dog into the sunlight so you can spot and remove those darn ticks. During this process, you may be wondering whether there are better ways to survive tick season, especially if you don’t want to use DEET (a chemical insecticide that may cause eye irritation, rash or other side effects) on yourself or veterinarian-grade pesticides on your pets. Even if you do use chemicals in your tick management plan, it’s still a good idea to back them up with sound natural strategies.
The stakes can be high. First described in 1977 as “Lyme arthritis,” tick-vectored (transmitted) Lyme disease is now the most common critter-vectored disease in North America. More than 30,000 cases were reported in 2008, including many in towns and cities where no previous infections had been recorded. Like an invasive weed, Lyme disease is slowly spreading inland from its stronghold along the northern Atlantic coast. (Click to read more about Lyme disease.)
Caused by the bacterium Borrelia brugdorferi, Lyme disease is carried by deer ticks (also known as black-legged ticks). White-footed mice frequently serve as reservoirs for the bacteria, as do deer and many other mammals. Ticks are most likely to transmit Lyme disease to humans when they are tiny nymphs (juvenile ticks), only slightly bigger than the period at the end of this sentence. Other tick species transmit diseases as well, including Rocky Mountain spotted fever. So no matter where you live, preventing ticks from finding you and your pets is always a good idea. To help you stay ahead of these pests, here are the top 10 natural ways to make tick season easier to take.
1. Dress Defensively. When you venture into areas where ticks might be waiting, dress for the occasion. Wear a hat and light-colored clothing (to help you see ticks before they find skin), and tuck your shirt into your pants and your pants into your socks. You may look goofy, but it’s better than becoming a tick’s dinner.
2. Get Sticky. Keep a sticky tape-type lint roller handy if you’re finding ticks regularly. This little gizmo will pick up unattached ticks from clothing or pets, which bring hitchhiking ticks into the house. Use any type of sticky tape to cleanly capture ticks crawling in your home.
3. Clean Up Your Act. When you come indoors after outside activities, give your clothes a 10-minute spin in a hot clothes dryer to kill any ticks that might be hiding in the folds or seams. Then take a hot, soapy bath or shower. Unattached ticks will be flushed away, but you will still need to do a tick check of your body.
4. Do Tick Checks. Ticks must feed for 36 to 48 hours in order to transmit Lyme disease, so regularly checking yourself for ticks after you’ve been in wooded areas is a hugely effective preventive measure. Look for tiny and foreign dark dots, especially in moist body creases in the armpits, groin, hairline, scalp, waistband and the backs of your knees. Let someone else check you, if possible, because it’s difficult to check your own scalp and backside. Because of their tiny size, it is entirely possible to carry a nymph on your body long enough for it to feed and then drop off without you ever knowing you were bitten, so be sure to check often and carefully. Check yourself before bed, too.
5. Upgrade Your Tick Removal Equipment. If you’re using tweezers or a pair of forceps to remove an attached tick from yourself or your pets, you’re doing it the hard way. Instead, try using small tick removal “spoons” such as the Tick Twister for little deer ticks, Ticked Off for any size ticks, or a Tick Key tick remover for larger dog ticks. All of these devices cost less than $5 and they are worth every penny. Look for them at pet stores or from online merchants.
6. Put Poultry to Work. Ticks have few natural predators, but many MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers report that their flocks of poultry have made big impacts on tick populations. In a study from South Africa, chickens were found to eat an average of 10 ticks per hour. (Click to read more about poultry pest control. — MOTHER)
7. Welcome Wildlife. Your homestead is less likely to become a Lyme disease hot spot if it includes numerous species of mammals, birds and reptiles for ticks to feed on instead of white-footed mice. Newly hatched tick larvae are disease-free, and if they feed on animals that are poor reservoirs of Lyme disease — most squirrels, for example — fewer nymphs will be infected.
8. Maintain Mowed Buffer Zones. Ticks sometimes do wander onto the edges of lawns, but they are most likely to find you as you walk through tall grass, work around low shrubbery, or hang out in shady, mulched areas. Open lawn makes poor tick habitat, so a swath of lawn makes a good buffer zone between your house and the wilder habitats preferred by ticks.
9. Perfume Your Pants. If you must venture into tick territory often, pump up the deterrent properties of your pants. Commercially made plant-based pesticides that deter ticks are made with lemon eucalyptus oil (available in Repel products as well as Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus Spray). It’s fragrant stuff, so you may prefer heavily treating your pants and socks better than slathering it on your skin.
If tick levels are high and you need to be in their habitat a lot, you may want to try the pesticide permethrin on your clothes. David Duffy, professor of botany at the University of Hawaii, led a study of the effectiveness of guinea fowl in reducing tick populations in New York. Duffy says he and the other researchers involved in his study protected themselves by spraying their clothing (long trousers tucked into socks) with permethrinbased products.
“It locks on to fabric, so it doesn’t come off in the wash,” he says. “We lined our trousers up on the porch, sprayed them and let them dry. They were good for five or six washes each, or two weeks at least.”
10. Track Any Attacks. If you do find an attached tick, remove it carefully with tweezers, forceps or a tick removal tool, wipe the bite with an antiseptic, and circle it with a permanent marker. Check the bite location every few days for a rash or other unusual inflammation, and promptly seek medical attention if you see or experience any symptoms of Lyme disease (see “Could It Be Lyme Disease?” below). The disease is curable if treated in its early stages, but if you wait too long, you could be in for a long and difficult recovery.
Could It Be Lyme Disease?
In addition to a “bull’s-eye” rash and soreness near the tick bite itself, other early signs of Lyme disease infection resemble the flu and can include chills, fever, joint pain and fatigue accompanied by swollen lymph nodes near the bite. If you have flulike symptoms and an inflamed bite — even if you never saw a tick — you should see a doctor right away. Several antibiotics are highly effective when taken during the first few weeks after the bacteria enter your body. If Lyme disease is not treated promptly, the bacteria will move into your muscles, nerves, joints and brain. Latestage Lyme disease is debilitating, causing severe arthritis, mental confusion, numbness of the arms and legs, and heart problems.
Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on Google+.