The Atlanta-based Centers For Disease Control (CDC) predicts that 2018 will see diseases transmitted through the bites of mosquitos, fleas and ticks to be a “growing public health problem” this year. The relatively mild winter months allowed more ticks to survive, more homes and subdivisions are being built in wooded and rural areas, and outdoor recreational activities are on the increase…all of which increases the likelihood of human interaction with ticks and other blood-feeding parasites.
Ticks are obligate blood feeders, requiring a suitable host animal to feed and survive. In addition, they can carry and transmit disease pathogens from one host animal to another via their bites and feeding. A unique trait of the hard-bodied ticks that are of concern to us is that they have a 3-host life cycle. Specifically, in their complete life cycle they require a new host to feed before falling off and developing to the next life stage.
The species of ticks that are of primary concern to humans are the Black-Legged tick (“deer tick”), the American Dog tick, the Brown Dog tick and the Rocky Mountain Wood tick. Of these, the Black-Legged tick is the principal vector for transmission of Lyme disease, while the others can transmit Rocky Mountain Spotted fever, Colorado Tick fever, Tularemia, Tick Paralysis, among many other health issues.
To walk the delicate balance of enjoying our outdoor space and to reduce the chances of unwanted tick encounters, the answer is to be aware and diligent when it comes to ticks, their habitat and what we can do to protect ourselves and our pets.
Ticks spend the majority of their time in areas with abundant ground cover, long grasses, low trees and shrubs, and where there is shade that offers additional protection. Avoidance of these areas, or limiting time spent in potential tick-infested areas is the first and best option. When avoidance is not an option, using topical preventatives such as DEET and permethrin sprays is highly recommended (following label directions). This is especially important when doing yard work, picking up leaf litter, and when trimming shrubs and bushes.
- Wearing light-colored clothing will help when inspecting for ticks. Pants should be tucked into socks, and shirts should be long-sleeved. Boots or closed shoes are the preferred footwear, while avoiding sandals or open-toed shoes.
- When hiking or walking in rural areas, keep to the pathways and avoid contact with the long grasses along the edges of the trail.
- Carefully inspect yourself for ticks, and be sure to thoroughly inspect your pets and children after being in tick areas.
- After outdoor excursions, immediately remove clothing and launder separately. Soap and water may not kill all ticks, but a session in your clothes dryer will effectively kill them all as they are highly susceptible to exposure to high heat (above 120F). If you are camping or not returning home immediately, store this clothing in plastic bags that are tied shut.
- When ticks are found imbedded in the skin, use thin tweezers or forceps to grasp the tick by its head, as close to the skin as possible, and pull out slowly and steadily. It should pop out easily, if grabbed properly.
- On regular hikes or prolonged outdoor exposure, keeping a “tick kit” available is always a good idea (“Tick Nipper”, “The Tick Key”, the “Silver Gripper”, “Pro Tick Remedy”), which can be purchased online or at most outdoor stores.
- Other methods such as using petroleum jelly, hot matches, or alcohol are just not effective and should not be used.
- Be sure to disinfect these bite areas with alcohol or other skin disinfectants. In a pinch, baby wipes or other sterile towelettes will work.
It is also recommended to save these ticks in a zip-lock bag, noting the date and time of the bite, for positive identification by an entomologist, a pest management professional, or a university extension service.
Incorporating and practicing these Integrated Pest Management techniques into your daily activities will help to reduce unwanted tick encounters…
- Keep lawns mowed and trimmed regularly during the summer months.
- Remove piles of grass clippings, leaf litter, and other brush piles.
- Reduce ground cover and other low plantings, especially close to the home.
- Maintain effective rodent control practices. Use baits and traps to eliminate rodent infestations, and identify and eliminate potential nesting and harborage sites.
- Locate firewood and bird feeders away from the home.
- Manage activity of your pets, to limit their exposure to wooded areas.
- Use fencing to keep deer and other potential host animals out of your property.
- Trim tree limbs and low shrubs, especially at edges of your property, to allow more sunlight.
- When building or renovating your home or landscape areas, consider using more decking, concrete slabs, stone walkways and gravel borders to reduce tick harborage.
- Place swing sets and other playground equipment away from wooded areas, and on vegetation- free ground space. Use bark mulch, dirt, sand and gravel in these situations.
- Utilize insecticide applications, when deemed necessary, along property borders to discourage tick activity (again, follow label directions & recommendations for tick control).
- Spending time in nature, especially when camping, it becomes more important to follow the basic IPM strategies that have been outlined here.
- Knowing that ticks are more prevalent in tall grasses and wooded areas – keep to trails, set up tents, tables and chairs in vegetation-free areas, where possible.
- Use DEET on your exposed skin and permethrin sprays on clothing.
- Be more vigilant to inspect for tick activity.
- Camp cots, chairs, picnic tables and beds can be set on tick interceptors (such as 1st Defence’s “Original Bug Coaster”). These coasters will intercept ticks and other crawling insects as they attempt to crawl up cots and camping chairs to find a host to feed on.
By being aware of your surroundings, being vigilant in the battle against ticks and other biting insects, and by following some simple IPM practices you can enjoy the outdoors without unnecessary worry when it comes to tick exposure.