Vigilance is best protection from ticks
Every morning the boy runs outside to see if the snow has cleared from the side yard near his bike jump, a trail and ditch he carved into a pile of dirt deposited by a road crew a few years back.
As of late last week, the snow had not yielded and the jump was still not bike ready.
“When will it really be spring?” he asks.
Not too many signs of spring have hit the way-up-north where I live. Some daffodil shoots are pushing through the soil, but buds and blooms are a week off.
Down in the tropics of Schenectady, the maples are flowering, but up north we’re still collecting sap.
The boy and I visited relations in Rhinebeck last weekend and were grateful to see blooming daffodils and budding hyacinths, blossoming forsythia and the reddening tips of maple trees.
It’s spring down there for real, and I have further proof: I came home with a deer tick.
I hate ticks. Two of my sisters live in Dutchess County, which is prime deer tick region. But with the warmer winters over the past several years, we’re seeing more and more ticks up north. Last year was a record tick season for us — we pulled four or five off the boy after hiking trips, and twice that many off the big dog.
Those ticks were all the larger dog ticks, not the tiny deer ticks famous for carrying Lyme disease. But until a few years ago, we never saw ticks of any kind up our way. We could generally count on a week of temperatures in the 20-below range every winter, and that seemed to wipe out any tick that might otherwise overwinter.
Not any longer. We haven’t seen 20-below in years. Which means we need to protect ourselves from ticks.
The most important thing is to be aware of where you are likely to pick up a tick — woods, weeds and high grasses — and to check yourself and your companions thoroughly when you get back indoors.
I should have checked as soon as I got home last weekend, because my sister and I spent some time strolling through the woods behind her house. She even mentioned ticks and worried about her dog picking up one. But I thought it was too early in the season, and by the time I found mine it had been embedded for a good 36 hours. That’s about how much time an infected tick needs to spread Lyme disease.
Anti-tick recommendations call for all hikers and woods walkers to cover up, all summer long. Wear long sleeves and long pants, and tuck you pants into your socks. Wear light colors so you can easily see ticks.
Of course you can pick up ticks when fully covered. It was cool at my sister’s last weekend, and I was wearing long pants and socks and a sweater — but a wily a tick found skin anyway.
And in the summer, we never follow the cover-up recommendations. We wear shorts and T-shirts, even when walking in the deep woods.
The other anti-tick recommendation is to use an insect repellent. Most people use repellents with DEET, which is better at repelling mosquitoes than ticks. DEET is considered safe by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatricians when used as directed, which means in concentrations of less than 30 percent, applied frequently when out and washed off when back at home. Most people don’t follow those recommendations.
A more effective tick repellent is permethrin, which is supposed to be sprayed onto clothing, not skin.
Personally, I am nervous about all chemical repellents, even those considered “safe.” There was a time when DDT and lead arsenics were considered just fine, and we’re still living with the legacy of their toxicity. A 2009 French study found DEET to be toxic to the nervous systems of insects AND mammals. And the EPA says permethrin is “highly toxic to both freshwater and estuarine aquatic organisms” and “to honeybees and other beneficial insects.”
You can make your own tick repellents, which are safer, although I can’t vouch for their effectiveness.
Some people say taking a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar a day or eating a lot of garlic repels insects and ticks (which are not insects but arachnids, like spiders). Some say ticks and mosquitoes are repelled by lavender, and you can either use a lavender soap or rub some leaves of lavender on your skin.
Or you can make a repellent: Start with a base of 4 tablespoons olive oil and 2 tablespoons aloe vera gel (which you can squeeze out of the leaves of an aloe plant if, like us, you keep one on your windowsill to treat kitchen burns). To that mixture add about 20 drops of an essential oil that ticks do not like the smell of: lavender, rose geranium, lemon eucalyptus or tea tree.
You can also mix one or more of the essential oils with apple cider vinegar and spray the mixture on your clothes and shoes. A few drops of rose geranium oil on a dog’s collar is also supposed to repel ticks.
I don’t know. Now that the ticks are bad up our way, I will be experimenting with oils and mixtures to see if I can find a remedy that’s effective. I’ll report back on the other side of summer.
In the meantime, I’m thinking vigilance is the best option: full body checks every evening, and be ready with the tweezers and the special tick remover (a plastic gadget that grabs the tick and lets you twist it out — handy because you don’t end up leaving any head parts in your dog’s, your kid’s or your own body.)
And if, like me, you end up with a deer tick embedded for a few days, keep a close watch. The percentages for getting Lyme, even after 36 hours, are still low, but you don’t want to miss it. Watch for a rash (a circular bull’s-eye is most common, but any reddening can be an indication of Lyme) and let your doctor know.
My pen pal from Maine has his own tick repellent: a favorite pair of hiking socks emblazoned with pictures of ticks surrounded by red circles with a slashes through them.
I like the anti-tick message, but I’m not sure it impresses arachnids.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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