Tick season has arrived in Missouri, and it is gross. Last week, my husband and I were snuggled on the couch while the kids were still asleep. I was reading a book on my Kindle, and he was watching a soccer game. It was very relaxed and peaceful until he said, “What’s that on your arm? A new mole?”
Spoiler alert: It was not a mole.
I looked down, and there, stuck to my arm, was a tick. It was about 1/8 of an inch across with 8 little legs, and it was feasting on, well, me! I may or may not have shrieked and flapped my arms, but the good news for me is that I knew how to remove the little beast, and I was able to get it off without causing more damage.
Aside from being completely disgusting, ticks carry a variety of different diseases, some of which can be quite serious and some of which are just plain weird. For example, did you know that bites from the Lone Star Tick can give you an allergy to beef and red meat? I know, technically not a disease, but completely freaky! Here are some of the diseases that ticks spread:
- Lyme Disease
- Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
- Heartland Virus
- And a whole host of others
But here’s the deal: It’s spring. It’s beautiful, and I’m not going to let fear keep my family from enjoying the outdoors.
There’s a lot of mythology out there surrounding ticks and tick removal, so I’m here to give you guys accurate information so that you can feel empowered about getting outdoors and having a fun and safe spring. We had a mild winter here in Missouri, so this tick season is going to be a bad one. The information I’m sharing with you comes from the Missouri Department of Conservation, the CDC, and other locations. I will provide links to my sources so you can dig as deeply into this as you like.
What is a tick?
A tick is a member of the arachnid family, a cousin of the spider and scorpion. They’re small, anywhere from the size of a poppy seed to 1/8-1/4 inches across. They survive as a parasite, eating the blood of other animals.
When & where are ticks found?
According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, ticks are most active in April-July. They like to live in brushy areas and tall grasses, and they hunt by climbing to the end of a leaf of grass blade and sticking a leg out in hopes of snagging it on a passing animal or human. They sense the carbon dioxide we breathe out and they follow that to find their prey. They like to hang out where prey is abundant, such as in the brush and tall weeds beside trails. But it’s not just hiking trails that harbor ticks. Last week, I didn’t venture from an urban area. My outdoor adventures were limited to playgrounds and the backyard. I still managed to pick up a tick from somewhere. They can be anywhere.
How do I avoid them?
You folks know that I usually prefer more natural products in my home and for my family, but I’m going to be real honest here and say that with ticks, I follow the recommendations of the CDC and Missouri Department of Conservation. Ticks are dangerous. They carry diseases that can have lifelong consequences. I’m not going to mess around with that!
First of all, you can avoid tick habitat.
- Stay out of brushy areas
- Don’t take shortcuts through tall grass
- Walk in the center of trails
Use tick repellents. Always, ALWAYS follow the directions from the manufacturer. Always.
- Permethrin – You can use this to treat your gear (shoes, hats, tents, backpacks, socks, pants, etc) to keep ticks away. This permethrin spray will last six weeks on your clothing and gear. It’s the kind my friend who is writing a hiking with kids book uses. Don’t apply this to skin and follow the directions for treating your gear. The important thing with this is that you need to plan ahead. Spray it and let it dry according to the manufacturers directions. When my friend led a hiking group yesterday, the folks who had treated their clothes had no ticks and all of the folks who did not had ticks inside their pants.
- DEET – You read that right. DEET. 20-30% DEET applied to clothes and exposed skin will last several hours. There’s no need to apply this to skin that will be under clothing. Use only what you need, help your kids apply it, and wash it off when you come inside. I, personally prefer not to apply this to my face and have not had mosquito or tick bites on my face. Also remember that higher DEET percentage isn’t necessarily better. According to Consumer Reports, effectiveness tops out at 30%.
- Natural insect repellents – There are a lot of insect repellents on the market including some nifty ankle bracelets that we used last year. I’ve used these in the past with good luck, although when I go hiking, I use them in combo with DEET sprayed on shoes and pant legs. In digging around, I found information about these to prevent mosquitos, but not a lot of info on using them to prevent ticks. With that in mind, for me, I’m most comfortable using the combination I mentioned above and re-applying every 30 minutes or so.
How do I check for ticks?
It’s important to check for ticks as soon as you come indoors. Strip down and, in a well lit area, check everywhere for them. Use a mirror if you don’t have another adult to help you check your back. Ticks love to hide in all the little nooks and crannies on your body, so when I say look everywhere, I mean it. They can be tiny. I pulled some nymphs (the babies) off of my youngest last year that were no bigger than a poppy seed! So look closely and take your time. Ticks like to hide in ears, armpits, belly buttons, and in the hair.
Bathe or shower right away after coming in. This will wash ticks off of you and down the drain.
Don’t just toss your dirty clothes in the hamper. I can tell you from experience, there’s not a lot grosser than pulling your clothes out and finding a tick crawling around in there. Yuck! It’s like it’s invading your home or something. The CDC recommends that you tumble-dry your clothes on high heat for an hour. I usually just throw ours straight into the wash. I don’t even bring them in to the carpet. Just straight into the washer.
How do I remove a tick?
There are a lot of methods floating around about tick removal: put an ice cube on it, burn it with a hot match, heat the tip of an ice pick and burn it to make it let go, paint it with nail polish or cover it in grease to smother it. Don’t do these things. Seriously. Don’t.
When you remove a tick, you want to remove it immediately, not wait around for it to let go. The longer it is attached, the higher the chances of it passing along a tick-borne disease.
The CDC gives the proper way to remove a tick and all you need is a pair of fine tipped tweezers:
- Grasp the tick as close to your skin as possible. Don’t squish it with the tweezers because this can squash its body fluids into you! Gross and unsanitary.
- Pull upward gently, with even pressure. Don’t jerk it. Don’t twist it. Just gentle even pressure. You don’t want to risk breaking off mouth parts in your skin.
- Wash the bite carefully with soap and water or rubbing alcohol.
- Dispose of the tick properly. Don’t smash it with your fingers! Remember, it’s a little bag of disease and plague and nastiness. Crushing it spreads that around. Treat it like it’s a biohazard. The CDC link above gives some suggestions, but my preferred method of disposal is to drown it in alcohol then flush it down the toilet.
Ticks exist. They’re out there. They’re a fact of life. But you can still enjoy the outdoors safely. I hope this article has helped you know how to keep your family safe this tick season.
Here’s a quick list of the pages I used to research this article:
Tick.info – A good website if you want to try to identify what kind of tick bit you