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How to Protect Yourself from Ticks, while Still Enjoying the Great Outdoors

The warmer weather encourages everyone to get outside and enjoy the sun on their face but there is one creature who is waiting in the wings to greet us and our pets…the tick. Few pests inspire the level of paranoia and anxiety as ticks. They are small, making it difficult to feel them crawling on you and if not discovered quickly they latch onto your skin and suck your blood. Even worse…they also transmit diseases!

Last month I was brushing my daughters hair at the end of the day, and I noticed something squiggling behind her ear. If you have never pulled a tick off your child there is an initial moment of disgust followed by panic! I am not writing this blog post because I am an expert in treatment lymes disease, but more to help educate ways to minimize your contact with these pesky pests and natural repellents to ward them off. 

When & Where Ticks Are Most Active 

Ticks are found across all of North America and can be active year-round especially in areas with mild winters. However, they are most active in the spring and summer months and often well into the fall (April-September) as they prefer warm humid temperatures. 

Although most common in wooded and tall grassy areas, ticks can also be found in your own backyard as they hitch rides on migrating birds in the spring making their way into city landscapes. However, you can breathe a small sigh of relief knowing that only a few of the 700 known species are found to bite and transmit diseases to humans.

Signs & Symptoms of a Tick Bite

Ticks can carry a host of pathogens that can cause human disease. Lyme disease is the most well-known, however ticks can also carry STARI (Southern tick-associated rash illness), Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF), and more.

Should you discover a tick attached to you, remove it immediately and if possible save the tick in a sealable plastic bag and store it in the freezer. This will preserve the tick and allow you to present it to your physician should you develop symptoms at a later date.

A small bump or redness at the site of a tick bite that occurs immediately and resembles a mosquito bite is common. This irritation generally goes away in 1-2 days and is not a sign of Lyme disease or STARI.

Should you be bitten or suspect you have been bitten by a tick, the following are signs and symptoms to watch for. 

  • Fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes may occur in the absence of rash
  • Rash 
  • The area may feel warm to the touch but is rarely itchy or painful
  • The rash sometimes clears as it enlarges, resulting in a target or “bull’s-eye” appearance

If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, consult your doctor or health physician and inform them that you suspect you have been bitten by a tick.

What to Expect if You Have Been Bitten by a Possible Lyme Disease Carrying Tick

Although not every bite from a tick transmits this infection, bites should be evaluated carefully since early detection and appropriate treatment are critical in effectively treating Lyme disease and preventing the potentially serious medical complications caused by this infection.

Black legged ticks are hard ticks identifiable by their black legs, red-orange body, and black scutum, which looks like a dot on the upper half of its shield. Should you be bitten by this tick or any other tick and develop symptoms, your physician will perform a blood test to look for antibodies associated with Lyme disease.

Untreated Lyme disease can cause:

  • Chronic joint inflammation (Lyme arthritis), particularly of the knee
  • Neurological symptoms, such as facial palsy and neuropathy
  • Cognitive defects, such as impaired memory
  • Heart rhythm irregularities

Antibodies can take weeks to develop after a bite and can persist in the blood for months or even years after the infection is gone, however, not all black legged ticks carry Lyme disease so it is vital to watch for any signs or symptoms of illness such as flu-like symptoms (chills, headaches, fever, fatigue), redness and swelling around the bite, a bulls eye rash, muscle and joint aches – consult your physician immediately should they appear.

Before and After You Go Outdoors

Before heading outside, there are four simple precautions and preventative measures you can take to protect yourself from ticks in your area.

Avoid areas where ticks are likely to hang out.

Ticks do not jump or fly, they simply hang out on a branch or long piece of vegetation waiting for a host to walk by. When walking or hiking in wooded areas, stick to the middle of the path to avoid brushing against long grasses. Avoid leaf litter and heavily bushed areas and when participating in outdoor activities such as picnics and sports, try to choose areas with lots of sunshine and low-cut grass.

Dress appropriately in bushy areas.

Wear light-coloured clothing such as long pants tucked into your socks and a long-sleeved shirt. This will allow you to see the darker-coloured ticks on your clothing before it makes its way to your skin. You may also choose to wear a hat and boots to ensure most of your skin is fully covered.

Use repellents on your skin and clothing. 

Deet has long been used as a tick repellent along with Permethrin, however, both can be toxic to humans and pets so you may want to choose from the natural repellents listed below.

  • 2-undecanone, which comes from the leaves and stems of wild tomato plants, bananas, cloves, ginger, guava, strawberries, and the perennial leaf vegetable Houttuynia cordata. 2-undecanone comes in both synthetic and natural forms and can be used on both skin and clothing.
  • Essential Oils from rosemary, lemongrass, cedar, peppermint, clove bud, thyme, neem seed, blue tansy, and geraniol. Essential oils can be used directly on the skin, and it is recommended to try a mixture of different oils to find which work best for you.

After returning from outside, inspect both yourself and your pets for any ticks that may still be looking for a free meal. Remove and wash all clothing followed by a cycle in a hot clothes dryer.

Stay Informed

The best way to enjoy your time outdoors is to use the above precautions and to stay informed on the level of tick borne illness, populations in your area, and the types of ticks in your zone so that you can avoid heavily infested areas.

The following apps are available for public use to help track and identify ticks that may be present where you live.

  • e-Tick: A public platform for image-based identification and population monitoring of ticks in Canada
  • The Tick App – Your on-the-go tick expert monitoring tick populations within the USA.

Although ticks can strike fear in the most courageous of people, you can still enjoy the outdoors safely all year long by being prepared, avoiding long grass, heavily wooded areas, and leaf debris, and by being diligent on checking for ticks after your time outside.

Sources

Jordan RA, et al. (2012). Efficacy of plant-derived and synthetic compounds on clothing as repellents against Ixodes scapularis and Amblyomma americanum (Acari: Ixodidae) [Abstract]

Christina A. Nelson, Catherine M. Hayes, Molly A. Markowitz, Jacqueline J. Flynn, Alan C. Graham, Mark J. Delorey, Paul S. Mead, Marc C. Dolan, The heat is on: Killing blacklegged ticks in residential washers and dryers to prevent tick borne diseases, Ticks and Tick-borne Diseases, Volume 7, Issue 5, 2016, Pages 958-963, ISSN 1877-959X,

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases (NCEZID), Division of Vector-Borne Diseases (DVBD) – Tick Removal – https://www.cdc.gov/ticks/removing_a_tick.html 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases (NCEZID), Division of Vector-Borne Diseases (DVBD) – Signs and Symptoms of Untreated Lyme Disease – https://www.cdc.gov/lyme/signs_symptoms/index.html 

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