5 ways to stay free of tick-borne diseases
This is one of my favorite times of year—when the snow and ice recedes, the birds sing, grasses grow, and we can get back outside. It’s so much easier to be healthy and active when the outdoors so convincingly calls. However, there are a couple of drawbacks to the season—and one in particular has me “ticked off”. Yes, I’m talking about ticks, and all the diseases they carry. When you’re headed outdoors, you need a sound strategy for dealing with one of nature’s meanest blood-suckers. All the more so because, relatively recently, nature has armed ticks with a number of new nasty surprises. Some of which can look very different from what you’re used to—and a few are downright deadly.
New Tick Tricks
By now, undoubtedly, you’ve heard of Lyme disease.
Hopefully, you know the warning signs as well. Lyme often presents with a bulls-eye rash (though not always). It will sometimes bring a fever, and sometimes other flu-like symptoms.
The easiest way to know if you’re dealing with Lyme is if symptoms get worse, instead of better, over time. At that point, you should go see a doctor, and fast. Lyme is relatively easy to treat with antibiotics inside the first month of infection. If it isn’t treated by then, it becomes chronic, and much harder to fight. So, if you know you’ve been bitten by a tick, go see your doctor – better to be safe than sorry.
However, today, I’m concerned about a new wave of tick-borne illnesses hitting our shores. Because, as nasty as Lyme disease is, a good doctor should be able to diagnose and treat it.
The same can’t be said for some of these newer, more exotic infections.
The scariest one is something called Powassan. While still rare, it’s incredibly dangerous. It causes swelling in the brain. Half of those who contract Powassan wind up with neurological damage, and 10% die.
Initial symptoms are non-specific, and some people are symptom-free or have very mild symptoms. Symptoms include: fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, seizures, and swelling of the brain or the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord (encephalitis or meningitis). Symptoms appear 1-4 weeks after a very small tick bite, small enough that many people don’t realize they’ve been bitten.
And, at the moment, we don’t know much about treating Powassan. The best we can do is treat the symptoms and hope the body takes care of the rest.
While Powassan is the most frightening new tick disease, it’s far from alone. In the past 50 years, at least a dozen new types of tick diseases have emerged.
In the west, there are new types of spotted fever diseases cropping up. In the south, new tick-borne skin infections. And in the northeast, you can find anaplasmosis, a disease similar to, but more potent than, Lyme disease.
I don’t say all this to scare you. Most of these diseases remain very rare, affecting—at most—a few hundred people a year.
However, they are expanding their reach. And they are, without doubt, dangerous.
That’s why the best way to protect yourself is to keep them as far from you as possible.
And that means limiting your exposure to ticks.
Five Ways to Avoid Tick Bites
I’m not recommending you lock yourself indoors until autumn’s first freeze. Far from it! You should get out and enjoy the world! There’s nothing as healing as a connection with nature.
But you should take precautions.
1. Wear Long Clothes
Your first line of defense is also your best. Generally speaking, ticks need bare skin—or skin covered in hair—to find a bite site. If you wear long pants and long sleeves, you’ve taken away most of a tick’s easiest entrances. Especially since ticks spend most of their time on tall grass, waiting for passing mammals.
If you cover up, you’re well protected. That’s not to say ticks can’t find their way inside clothing—but it’s much more unlikely.
2. Use Nature’s Pest Repellent—Pyrethrin
A compound found in chrysanthemums, pyrethrin is a highly effective tick—and mosquito—repellant. Indeed, in high enough doses, this compound can kill ticks and mosquitos.
However, unlike artificial chemical solutions like DEET, pyrethrin is safe for external use around all mammals (including your pets playing in the backyard and the grandkids).
Still, you shouldn’t apply it directly to your skin. Instead, put a bit on your clothing—or, better yet, buy insect-repellant clothes that already have pyrethrin laced into the fabric.
And give your back yard a splash of pyrethrin every few weeks. It’s all-natural, but it does have a shelf life, so it will need refreshing about once every three weeks.
Pay special attention to transition areas. Speaking of…
3. Create Natural Borders
Ticks thrive by traveling between different habitats during different stages of life. Sometimes ticks like to be in forests. They’ll come out to grassy areas when they’re ready to feed on you.
You can greatly reduce the tick population in your yard by creating natural borders between different habitats. For instance, a mulch path, around three feet across, that separates woods from grass will make it much harder for ticks to infest your local land.
4. Use Fences As Well
Natural borders are great for ticks trying to make their own way, but there are plenty that hitch a ride on deer. That’s how deer ticks got their name.
That’s why, as lovely a scene as deer grazing in your backyard may be, it’s also a warning sign. Anywhere deer have been, ticks are likely to follow.
So, if you live around deer, it’s worth fencing in a part of your yard to keep the deer—and the ticks—out. Save that sort of nature scene for your hikes, when you’re well covered by long clothing.
5. Get Them at The Source
While ticks like riding deer, it’s mice that are the real problem. Mice are hosts for most if not all tick-borne diseases—they are the breeding ground for the infections that threaten us.
Luckily, that gives us a few easy ways to fight off tick-borne diseases.
First, of course, is to keep mice out of your house. Don’t leave crumbs about or food out, and check your house for possible entryways.
But, unless you’ve got a hunting cat, it can be very difficult to keep all mice out. So turn them to your advantage.
You probably know that mice like to nest. And they love to burrow in small places.
So you can set up an irresistible tick killing machine at home. Take old toilet paper rolls, and put some pyrethrin-soaked cotton balls in them.
The mice will explore the mini-tunnels. They’ll take the cotton balls to create nests.
And the cotton balls will kill the ticks that live on the mice. It’s a highly-targeted attack that harms only the ticks, and nothing else.
And if all that sounds like too much work, just type “tick tube” into your search engine and you’ll find ready-made commercial solutions.
Again, pyrethrin is perfectly safe for just about everything but ticks. It’s naturally found in chrysanthemums, which are perfectly safe to eat. Not even the mice will show ill effects.
Most of these solutions are very low-tech, and require very little work. But, considering the dangers that they protect you from, they’re well worth the effort. Keep ticks out of your home, your yard, and off your body, and you’ll never have to worry about Lyme, or any other, tick-borne disease.
- Doucleff, Michaeleen, and Greenhalgh, Jane. Beyond Lyme: New Tick-Borne Disease On The Rise In U.S. NPR. Published Mar 11, 2017. Accessed Apr 6, 2017.
- Beans, Carolyn. Taking The Battle Against Lyme Disease Ticks To The Backyard. NPR. Published Jul 20, 2016. Accessed Apr 6, 2017.
- Doucleff, Michaeleen, and Greenhalgh, Jane. Forbidding Forecast For Lyme Disease In The Northeast
Last Updated: April 28, 2020
Originally Published: May 1, 2017