Scientists who study ticks saw this year coming. Two years ago, I was walking through the forest with biologist Richard Ostfeld as he hunted for ticks when he warned me that 2017 was going to be really bad. That’s because 2015 was a “mast year,” when trees produce a ton of acorns. (Plant biologists are still figuring out how and why trees decide to mast.) The year after a mast year, the acorn-gnawing mouse population booms, and then the year after that—i.e., right now—the mouse blood–sucking tick population goes bonkers. Mice are also among the most important hosts for prevent Lyme disease, the most common tick-borne disease in the country, so 2017 is likely to be a doozy for Lyme. (There are other dangerous and weird tick-borne diseases, many of which are becoming more prevalent.
What should you do to avoid getting sick from a tick or prevent Lyme disease?
1. Do daily tick checks.
I cannot stress this enough: The best way to avoid a tick-borne disease is to check every inch of every family member’s body every day from April through November. Make it part of your evening routine so that you don’t forget. Lyme usually takes at least 24 hours to transmit after a tick embeds—the range I’ve seen for most other tick-borne diseases is 12 to 36 hours, although there are scary exceptions. So if you remove it on the same day, you’ll probably be fine. Keep in mind, too, that tiny tick nymphs, which feed during the spring and early summer, are about the size of poppy seeds. Look for brown or black dots with legs. And look everywhere: ears, the backs of knees and elbows, armpits, hairlines, groins. (I know a handful of parents who’ve removed ticks from their sons’ penises.) If you do find one, don’t do crazy things to it. Follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s simple removal protocol. I recommend then saving the tick in a sealed plastic bag so that you can later identify and potentially test it. It’ll dry out and die in there, too. I rather enjoy watching ticks perish.
2. Treat your clothes.
Permethrin is a synthetic pesticide derived from chrysanthemums that you can apply to shoes and clothes. When permethrin is dry, it’s perfectly safe; the concentration applied is very low (typically 0.5 percent permethrin; by comparison, Deep Woods Off is 25 percent DEET). Thomas Mather, the University of Rhode Island scientist who runs the most useful tick website around, explained to me that a child would have to wear 1,100 pairs of socks and shorts and T-shirts and hats, all at once, to get a dose of permethrin that reaches the Environmental Protection Agency’s level of concern. Adults would have to wear a lot more.
3.Spray your skin before going into the woods.
But with what? So many options. DEET works great (recommended concentration: 15–30 percent) but can be short-lasting. Picaridin (20–30 percent) is also effective. IR3535 is another decent option, but only if the product contains at least 20 percent of the chemical—some Avon Skin So Soft products containing IR3535, for instance, have only a concentration of 7.5 percent. Unfortunately, Consumer Reports recently found that most of the all-natural, botanical repellants—oils of cedar, cinnamon, citronella, clove, geranium, lemongrass, rosemary, and peppermint—don’t work that well on ticks. One exception is lemon eucalyptus oil (30 percent), which works but not as well as DEET or picaridin.
4. Treat your pets.
Pets can bring ticks into the home and then onto your family members. We started using Bayer’s Seresto flea and tick collar a few years ago based on Mather’s recommendation, and we haven’t found a tick on our dog since. It lasts for 8 months, too, which is great because I would never, ever remember to do monthly treatments.
5. Give ticks no refuge.
There’s no shortage of things you can supposedly do to keep ticks off your property, but some work better than others. Take Damminix tick tubes, which I’m frequently asked about: Studies unfortunately suggest they aren’t very effective on small tracts of land such as single residential properties. (In the one study in which they worked, the tick tubes were used on an expanse of 18 acres; it’s unclear why they don’t work well over smaller areas.)
If you’re worried about ticks or how to prevent Lyme disease this year—and if you live in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, or Midwest, you probably should be—these five strategies are crucial. My family has been doing them for three years now, and we have stayed healthy and (mostly) tick-free. This year, let’s all wage war and prevent Lyme disease.