Ticks are nasty little creepy crawlers that can carry disease, and the best way to prevent tick-borne disease is to avoid being bitten in the first place.
With 2017 being a record year in Virginia for human infections of Lyme disease — some 1,650 infections were reported across the state — a few simple precautions can make all the difference.
“Permethrin is very effective when applied to shoes, socks, and pants. By the time a tick crawls across it they’ve picked up enough of a dose that when they finally reach skin they won’t feel well enough to feed,” he said.
Gaines has spent plenty of time in tick habitats and said he has found products containing permethrin to be highly effective.
Ticks stay on the ground or very close to it, usually climbing no higher than 6 inches or so up onto vegetation, he said.
“They’re not up in the air like many people assume, and they’re not dropping out of trees. That’s an old wives tale,” he said.
Gaines also recommends tucking pants legs into socks when possible, meaning a tick has to climb at least to a person’s waist before they find bare skin. If shoes, socks, and pants are treated, it’s unlikely the tick will survive a climb that long.
If a person is wearing shorts and short sleeves, there are brands of repellent that are safe and designed to be applied to bare skin.
Lyme disease is biggest threat
One of the problems with ticks, especially the black-legged tick, which is the primary carrier of Lyme disease, is that the young ticks, or nymphs, are so small and can be difficult to spot, even on clothing.
“Nymphs will feed on anything,” Gaines said.
While adult black-legged ticks prefer deer or other animals, the nymph will take its blood meal from anything. In addition to a repellent, Gaines recommends carefully checking for ticks immediately after being in tick habitat.
Finding a tick, whether a black-legged or a Lone Star tick, attached to the skin isn’t a guarantee of disease, as only a small percentage of ticks are thought to carry Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which is sometimes carried by the Lone Star tick.
Likewise, the shorter the amount of time a tick is attached to the skin, the lower the risk of disease transmission, Gaines said. Most infections occur when the tick has been attached to the skin for 72 hours or more.
“If you discover a tick attached to your skin, use a fine pointed pair of tweezers, grasp as close to the head as possible without squeezing its body, and apply a steady pull,” he said, adding that it’s important not to jerk up quickly or twist the tick, which could break part of the tick off inside the skin.
Gaines said old fashioned tick removal methods, such as burning, applying alcohol, or covering it with Vaseline, are not methods that should be used.
Ticks almost always are limited to shaded areas or very close to tree lines. They typically avoid direct sunlight. However, if deer are common to a certain area, say around a home or a neighborhood, the ticks can be transported there by the deer.
Both the adult black-legged tick and the adult Lone Star tick, fully fed by a blood meal, can lay up to 3,000 to 4,000 eggs.