Get ready for tick season. Here’s how to protect yourself with safe but also effective solutions!
First, let’s just talk about ticks and mosquitoes. Not to be scary, but lyme disease, anaplasmosis, babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, tularemia, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Powassan virus, West Nile virus, eastern equine encephalitis, dengue, and now zika are just some of the diseases transmitted by these biting insects.
Everyone should check local or state public health agencies to learn the habits and life cycles of the biting insects and ticks in your area, as well as labs that will identify ticks. Learn to remove a tick safely and check every inch of your body (inside and behind ears, scalp, belly button, behind knees, between toes, etc.) after outdoor excursions.
But remember: not all species of ticks and mosquitoes in any given area are able to transmit disease, and even if they do have that capability, the one that bites you might not be carrying enough of a viral or bacterial load to infect you.
Mosquitoes usually become infected from feeding on infected birds. Ticks generally pick up infectious bacteria as young larvae feeding on infected rodents.
Fortunately, there are ways your can protect yourself and your loved ones from getting bitten in the first place.
How Ticks Find You
Lacking wings, ticks can’t fly. They also don’t leap, hop, drop from trees, or even move very fast. Instead, ticks at every stage of development seek their hosts with a behavior entomologists call “questing.”
They climb the stems of grasses, foliage plants, and low shrubbery, and extend their forelegs—which contain sensing organs that respond to carbon dioxide, body heat and odors, vibration, and moisture—grabbing on when a suitable host brushes by. They crawl, generally upward, until they find a patch of skin to attach to, secreting anaesthetics and anticoagulants, and “cementing” themselves in for a meal.
Ticks have evolved an ingenious two-way system that sends concentrated nutrients from the blood meal into the tick’s gut in one direction, while returning excess fluid—along with any pathogens living in the tick’s saliva—back into the host’s body.
What is the best tick removal device available?
It’s the one you have with you in that moment of horror when you discover an unwanted hitchhiker. Almanac General Store Tick Key tick removers come in a 3-pack and fit on your key chain or dog’s collar so you’ll always be prepared. $15.95
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How Mosquitoes Find You
Only female mosquitoes bite; they need blood to develop their eggs. Recent research shows that mosquitoes use a combination of smell, sight, and thermal sensing to locate a suitable host. Unlike the tick, which can attach for hours or days, a mosquito zooms in for a quick nip and flies away.
How to Prevent Tick and Mosquito Bites
A few simple strategies can help you avoid tick and mosquito bites when you go outside:
Avoid times of day when most mosquitoes are active (early moring and dusk), and areas where ticks are most likley to abound.
Dress to defend. Cover up with long, light-colored pants tucked into socks, long sleeves with tight cuffs, long gloves, and tall rubber boots (ticks can’t climb the shiny surface) Wear a head net with netting that comes down over your shoulders if you’re walking through brush or pruning shrubs, berry bushes, or fruit trees.
Better yet, invest in a full netting suit that covers you from head to ankles. (Yes, the photo above is me in my Bug Baffler.) At first you may feel like the village eccentric working your garden, mowing your lawn, or tromping down a local nature trail—but hey, think of yourself as a public-health trendsetter.
For even more protection, wear garments treated with permethrin, a serious pesticide that disables or kills ticks or flying insects that land on it. You can purchase treated garments from outdoor retailers, or buy permethrin sprays to treat your own clothing. The protective effect will last through several washings, but wash permethrin-treated clothing separately from other clothes.
Warning: Don’t spray or rub permethrin directly onto skin. Follow label instructions. Always spray outdoors on a calm, dry day. Keep permethrin containers locked and away from children.
Use bug repellents. These products don’t repel as much as confuse insects and ticks, so they don’t recognize you as a potential host. Repellents come in sprays, lotions, sticks, and wipes, and they vary widely in what biting pests they work against, the concentration of effective ingredients, and the hours of protection they provide. Check those labels carefully.
DEET is the current gold standard for insect and tick protection. It’s been used and studied since 1946, though it has caused health concerns. For good protection against ticks, use in 15 percent to 50 percent (but no nigher) concentrations.
Picaridin is generally considered safer (especially for children) than DEET, and also won’t damage fabrics. To protect against ticks, use the 20 percent concentration.
BioUD, a relatively new product developed by research scientists at North Carolina State University, works as well or better than DEET against mosquitoes and ticks. Its active ingredients are naturally occurring essential oils from wild tomato plant.
Although the many other products manufactured from or homemade plant extracts or essential oils may have good short-term use against mosquitoes and other biting insects, I wouldn’t trust them to repel ticks in a heavily infested area. Researchers have several plant-based repellents in the pipeline that may come on line soon.