You might have noticed that we’re having a bit of a crisis with ticks and mosquitoes. They bite, they suck, and they can transmit pathogens to us during their feeding. One of the many things that we can do to avoid ticks and mosquitoes is to use repellents. But there are two important ideas to consider before picking a product from the shelf:
Not every product has been proven effective, and
The safety of a product depends on how you use it.
More than ever, an old adage reigns true: buyer beware! When it comes to tick and mosquito repellents, there are a number of products that claim to be effective—but offer no evidence or data to support the claim. This is especially true of many “natural” products with essential-oil active ingredients. Why? Products with essential-oil active ingredients don’t have to pass a scientific review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and can go to market without demonstrating that they work. These products give users a false sense of security that they are protected against biting insects when they are not. Learn more about this topic from our Tick FAQ section, What natural products can I use to repel ticks? For details on what products work, see the Insect Repellent Buying Guide from Consumer Reports
A confusing mix: some of these products can be applied to skin, others should not under any circumstance contact skin while wet. Read the label before using any pesticide product.
Product Safety and Use Restrictions: The Label Is the Law
As a pest management educator, I’ve said a million times, “the label is the law.” This is literally true—all labels of EPA registered products read, “It is a violation of Federal law to use this product in a manner inconsistent with its labeling.”
Here is a critical distinction about the products you might see on a shelf:
Products with the active ingredient permethrin can actually kill ticks and mosquitoes. According to one label, “This product must not be applied to clothing while it is being worn. Under no circumstances should bare skin or clothing on the body be treated.” In other words, if you’re going to use permethrin, you have to treat your clothing or gear before you intend to use it so the pesticide can dry. According to the label on one product, this may be two to four hours.
On the other hand, products with active ingredients DEET, picaridin, and IR3535 can be sprayed on clothing and skin to repel biting pests. These products work by masking the cues that make you smell tasty to mosquitoes and ticks. According to one label for these products, “Use just enough repellent to cover exposed skin… Do not use under clothing… Frequent reapplication and saturation is unnecessary for effectiveness.”
We want you to enjoy the outdoors—and we want you to do it safely. Both types of products can be used to protect you, your friends, and families from the bite of blood-feeding organisms. To further protect health, always read and follow label instructions.
Ticked off about ticks? You are not alone. And knowing the what, where, why, etc. is critical to knowing how to deal with them. So here it is, the first in a series: the low-down on that pest we love to hate.
May you, dear reader, stay tick-free and healthy.
1. What, exactly, is a tick?
Ticks are related to mites and spiders—but not to insects. (Now don’t go worrying about spiders—in the Northeast, virtually all are common victims of common misunderstandings.) Ticks have four life stages: egg, larvae, nymph and adult. All stages (well, not the eggs) feed on blood for energy to grow and later to reproduce. Larval ticks have six legs; nymphs and adults have eight.
Those things that look like antenna? Not—they’re highly adapted legs that process vital information. And that snout in the middle? Blood-sucking mouthparts. (Photo CDC)
Right now, three species are a health concern here in New York: the blacklegged tick, the lone star tick, and the American dog tick.
2. What do ticks look like?
Regardless the species, unfed ticks look like flattened teardrops with eight legs. And depending on their species, life stage and sex (male versus female), they have different color patterns on their bodies. But after they’ve eaten, their abdomens (the females’ especially) can expand so much that it’s really hard to know which is which. You can get positive IDs here.
Just keep in mind that learning a tick’s identity doesn’t mean you know if it’s carrying a disease.
I wrote a sentence on my finger, period and all. And yep, the larvae are that small. (Courtesy Cal Dept Public Health)
As for size? Again, that depends on the species, its life stage, and whether it has fed (and for how long). For blacklegged and lone star ticks, larvae are the size of the period at the end of this sentence. Nymphs? Think poppy seeds. Adults? Sesame seeds. When fully fed, adult females can be as large as a raisin.
American dog ticks, though, are a tad larger than the other two.
3. Are ticks a new problem? Why have we been hearing so much more about them lately?
Turns out ticks are nothing new. In fact, evidence suggests that ticks were carrying Lyme disease pathogens 15 to 20 million years ago (Lyme Disease’s Possible Bacterial Predecessor Found in Ancient Tick). What is new? We’re seeing far more ticks throughout the Northeast and much of North America than during any time in recorded history. And of course the more ticks in the neighborhood, the greater our risk of disease.
Why are ticks on the move? For one, (sub)urban sprawl leaves small patches of wooded areas—great habitat for mice and deer but far less welcoming to their traditional enemies—hawks or foxes, cougars or wolves. (More later on the role of mice and deer in tick-borne diseases.) In addition, a warming climate makes northern areas more hospitable for ticks.
Ah, yes. A place to call home—and nary a wolf in sight. (Photo provided.)
4. Where do ticks live? How do they find me? And where did the deer ticks go?
Blacklegged ticks are usually found in woodlots, forest edges, and groundcovers such as pachysandra or periwinkle—places where leaf litter, shrubs, and tree cover provide the moist environment they need. And how do they find us? Just as we sometimes go on quests, so too do they. Only they’re not seeking adventure or the Holy Grail, but simply a host. A host that provides the food (think blood) they need to thrive, or at least survive.
About deer ticks? Years ago, researchers thought they’d found a new species and gave it the common name “deer tick.” Turned out it was the same old blacklegged tick that’s been here since time immemorial.
No matter that these ticks lack eyes—questing ticks stand on the edge of a twig or leaf, their first pair of legs extended. Evolution endowed them with cleverly designed legs: they’ve got sensors to detect temperature, the carbon dioxide those hosts exhale, and odors or sounds specific to those hosts. When a host brushes past, they grab on tight.
The nymphs typically quest below a person’s knee-height. Because adult ticks feed on larger animals, they might quest higher up to find a host—as high as your waist-height or mine.
The lone star tick is on a roll, with its own suite of diseases and syndromes — some still mysterious. (Photo CDC)
The lone star tick thrives in a wide range of habitats, from shady forests to sunny lawns or roadsides. Unlike the blacklegged tick, the lone star tick hustles toward its prey, even across pavement or dry sand. Other distinguishing features? Well … it’s lots more aggressive. Imagine a tick that travels three times as fast as the blacklegged tick, has excellent vision, and hatches in stinging swarms that can put fire ants to shame.
Last but not least—the American dog tick. Forget the woods: this tick thrives in warm, dry places—roadsides, grassy fields, scrubland and lawns. Larvae and nymphs mostly feed on small mammals, while adults climb grass, brush, or twigs to find medium-sized animals—people included. And sometimes American dog ticks could be even more aggressive. TickEncounter has reported seeing American dog ticks follow a regular source of carbon dioxide that attracted them for upward a few hundred yards to the house. And in one memorable case ticks were crawling up the outside walls toward window screens and doors. Now if that doesn’t give you the willies….
No matter which tick you might collide with—this is one party you don’t want to host.
Stay tuned for another informative post on the biology behind that pest we love to hate.
(Adapted from nysipm.cornell.edu/whats-bugging-you/ticks/tick-faqs#answers)
May 24, 2018
by Joellen Lampman Comments Off on Minimize tick risk while minimizing pesticide risk
“I already found a tick on me!” – many people across NY
Many New Yorkers still equate tick activity with summertime, but blacklegged ticks, the ones that carry Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, babesiosis, Powassan virus, and Borrelia miamyoti, are most active in the spring and fall. (They can actually be active year round if the temperature and humidity levels are just right. Thus the heavy activity on the warm days in February.)
The goal is to prevent ticks from becoming embedded in the first place. But if you do find an embedded tick, remove it properly!
And in the springtime the blacklegged tick nymph turns to thoughts of questing. And nymphs are small. Poppy seed-sized small. If you are not intentionally conducting a daily tick check, you could easily miss one. And even if you are intentionally looking, one can occasionally get through your visual defenses. Which is why I was able to take this tick removal video after finding this tiny nymph on my leg when using my fingertips to search by feel. Since Powassan virus can be transmitted after 15 minutes of the tick being embedded, the incentive for not being bitten has risen dramatically.
Which brings us to the use of clothing treatments to protect ourselves. Permethrin is a pesticide that can be applied to clothing, footwear and gear before exposure. Researchers for the Center for Disease Control recently conducted a study showing how permethrin interferes with blacklegged, American dog, and lone star ticks’ ability to move and, thus, to bite. Read about it here.
Now the easiest option is to buy pretreated clothing or have your clothes professionally treated. The TickEncounter Resource Center has an excellent section of their website about tick repellent clothes, including where to get them.
For DIYers, permethrin can be purchased at many sporting goods and big box stores as a liquid or aerosol spray. But it must be applied safely and correctly. I try not to react in horror as people tell me they will spray the clothes they are wearing just prior to walking out the door. This product must NOT be applied to clothing while it is being worn. Or when one’s husband announces that he left his newly treated clothing in the basement. (And, yes, he sprayed the clothes down there too.) Permethrin must be applied outdoors. Don’t take my word for it. This information, and more, is found on the label. Let’s take a close look at the label from a commonly found product. (Does not imply endorsement.)
The label is the law and will tell you everything you need to know about using a pesticide correctly and legally.
The label, which is vetted through the EPA and, in NY, the DEC, provides information on the following topics (with a few examples thrown in):
Signal Word – this is your clue to how dangerous the pesticide is. To put it simply, categories include Caution (slightly toxic), Warning (moderately toxic), and Danger (highly toxic). This formulation of permethrin is labeled Caution.
DIRECTIONS FOR USE – includes, but is not limited to:
SHAKE WELL BEFORE USING. (Emphasis theirs. It must be important!)
This product must not be applied to clothing while it is being worn. Under no circumstances should bare skin or clothing on the body be treated. (Emphasis also theirs.)
Make all applications outside.
STORAGE & DISPOSAL
Store in a cool, dry place inaccessible to children.
Never place unused product down any indoor or outdoor drain
PRECAUTIONARY STATEMENTS – includes “Do not use on humans.”
FIRST AID – in case you didn’t follow the precautionary statements.
This product is extremely toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms.
We hit just some of the highlights, but it is all important. The label not only provides suggestions for using the product safely – the label is the law. That too is on the label: “Buyer assumes all risks of use, storage or handling of this product not in strict accordance with directions given herewith.”
So what is one to do? Why, follow the label of course. Decide which clothes you might wear into tick infested places and “select an outdoor area protected from the wind, spray outer surfaces of clothing (while not being worn) with a slow sweeping motion to lightly moisten the surface of the fabric, holding pump at a distance of 6 to 8 inches. Treat outer surfaces of each outfit, front and back, for 30 seconds on each side and allow to dry for at least 2 hours (4 hours under humid conditions). Pay particular attention to socks, trouser cuffs, and shirt cuffs.”
Then plan for the next application. “Clothing should be retreated after six weeks or after the sixth laundering to maintain adequate protection” I both mark the day I sprayed in my calendar and schedule an appointment for six weeks later.
By the way, professionally treated clothing also has a label, often found on the hang tag when purchased. Be sure to follow those instructions carefully as well.