Deer Tick Information Courtesy Franklin County Commissioners
As the leaves begin to change color and temperatures turn cooler, adult deer tick (Ixodes scapularis) activity begins to ramp up. Many people in Franklin County enjoy the beautiful colors that Pennsylvania has to offer this time of year. But when enjoying Pennsylvania’s great outdoors where these ticks dwell, it is important to know what precautions to take when entering their habitat.
Preventing a tick bite is so important, especially in Pennsylvania, where we lead the country in reported Lyme disease cases.
The deer tick, also known as the Black Legged Tick, is the one responsible for transmitting this disease.
Deer Tick Activity
Research has shown that the majority of adult deer tick activity starts around mid-October and runs until early spring. During this long stretch of time, there are periods in which ticks will be active and inactive. If the ground and air temperatures consistently stay at or below freezing, typically the ticks will stay dormant.
It is important to keep in mind that one single frost will not keep deer ticks at bay for the remainder of fall and winter. For example, if the temperature drops to 28 degrees overnight but reaches 43 degrees by mid-morning, ticks can become active until the temperature drops back down to freezing. During mild winters we will see more tick activity, during cold winters we will see less.
Deer Tick Habitat
Before addressing what you should do to protect yourself from tick bites, we must understand deer tick habitat. First, think about other preventative products we use—items like sunscreen. We use sunscreen before going outside during certain times of the year, when we may receive harmful UV rays from the sun. We don’t wear sunscreen in our home, or in the evening hours, because the threat of UV rays is not present.
Use tick repellent in exactly the same way. We only need to use it when we are entering areas where ticks may be present.
The question is: what is an area in which we could encounter a deer tick? We often associate ticks with tall grass and meadows, but the deer tick’s habitat is different.
While you may still encounter a deer tick in tall grass, the more common habitat is in the woods and where grass and woods meet. Deer ticks thrive in the woods and in areas in and around the woods that contain leaf litter, shrubs, and tall or short grasses.
A walking trail through a beautiful forest or meadow along a wood line are prime locations for deer ticks. Recognizing the habitat and planning ahead prior to entering is the first defense against tick bites.
Repellents and Deer Tick Prevention
Now that we know where these ticks dwell, we must know what precautions to take when entering these areas. There are many tick repellent products that are on the market. Regarding these products, it is important to read and follow the instructions on the label, not only for your personal protection, but also to maximize effectiveness. Look for these products in the outdoors section at most retailers. They are approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Center of Disease Control (CDC). [For more information on the following products, please visit the CDC website. https://www.cdc.gov/ticks/index.html.
Research has shown that insect repellents containing DEET are effective at repelling ticks. Apply DEET each time you are going to enter tick habitat. Like sunscreen, the higher percentage of DEET concentration, the longer the product will last. If you are going to be out in the woods for an hour or two, use a lower concentration of DEET. If you expect to be out longer, use a higher concentration. It is important to note that DEET does not kill ticks, it just repels them. DEET products used as directed should not be harmful to use on the skin and clothes, depending on your clothing’s material.
The second option is products containing 0.5% permethrin. The most common product containing this active ingredient is Sawyer. This product treats clothes and should not be sprayed on skin. Place clothes on an outside line, spray and allow to dry. The product works when the permethrin makes a strong bond with the fibers in the clothing. It can last up to 6 weeks or 6 washings. The permethrin not only deters the tick from climbing on you, but kills it upon contact. Treated clothing can be stored in a sealed container or bag to extend effectiveness when not being used.
The third option is a more natural approach to tick repellents. Certain oils derived from plants are shown to be effective in repelling and/or killing ticks. The level of effectiveness of these natural oils when compared to DEET and permethrin is still being debated. CDC recommended oils are: 2-undecanone, garlic oil, rosemary, cedar, peppermint, thyme, geraniol, nootkatone, and lemon eucalyptus.
Dressing the Part: Protect Yourself
In addition to the repellents, there is an optimal way to dress when entering a tick habitat. The preferred attire consists of a long sleeve shirt and pants that are light in color. If clothing covers as much of the skin as possible, ticks have a smaller selection of areas in which to bite. It is also a good idea to tuck your clothing in wherever possible. Eliminating gaps in the clothing can lessen the chance of a tick coming in contact with your skin. Wearing light colored clothing allows for easier detection of ticks.
After returning from tick habitat there are additional steps you should take to further prevent a bite:
- Remove your clothes immediately after returning home and place them in the dryer for 10 minutes. This step is to kill any ticks that may be on your clothes.
- Take a shower as soon as possible and check your body, paying particular attention to areas in and around the hair, ears, armpits, inside the belly button, around waist, groin area, and back of knees.
Deer Tick Bites and Symptoms of Lyme Disease
If you are bitten by a deer tick, remove the tick as soon as possible. Research shows that the less time a tick is attached to you, the lower the chances that the bacteria causing Lyme will be transferred. Use fine pointed tweezers and grab the tick as close to your skin as possible. With a steady motion, pull the ticks body away from the skin. Wash the area with rubbing alcohol or soap and water. Place the tick in a plastic bag and put it in your freezer for proper identification of the species by a medical professional.
According to the CDC, the most common symptom of Lyme disease is the bullseye rash around the tick bite; but the rash only occurs in 70% of patients. Other symptoms include: fatigue, chills, fever, headache, muscle and joint pain, and swollen lymph nodes. It is recommended that if any of these symptoms develop after a tick bite to contact a medical provider. You may also choose to contact your medical provider after a tick bite even if symptoms do not develop.
Deer Ticks Around Your Home
Many people may be curious about ticks around their home and property. It is important to remember that deer ticks need a certain habitat in order to survive. If your house is near woods, or harbors leaf litter, shrubs, and taller grasses, there is a possibility that ticks may be on your property. Most well-manicured lawns, areas free of woods or leaf litter may not harbor ticks. If you are worried about ticks at your home and property, drag a white piece of felt along your yard, flower beds, and vegetation to see if there is a population. Ticks will grab onto the sheet as you drag it over them. After you drag the sheet of felt, flip it over to see if any ticks are attached.
Deer Ticks and Deer Hunters
Deer hunters can be especially susceptible to deer ticks. The white-tailed deer is one of the adult deer tick’s favorite hosts, and the deer can carry many. Hunter harvested deer should be placed in large sealed plastic bags if transporting in a vehicle from harvest location to butcher location.
The bag will prevent ticks from climbing off your deer and into your vehicle or in the bed of your truck. Butchering the deer yourself on your property? The deer should be hung above a small plastic pool filled with water. Any ticks that drop off from the deer will fall into the water and not on the ground.
Put the hide in a sealed plastic bag once it has been removed and dispose of it properly. If a deer hide is placed on the ground, not in a sealed bag, ticks may climb off and on to your property. Anytime you are handling a harvested deer, be sure to shower and do a “tick check” as soon as possible.
Dog owners and dogs can also be susceptible to deer tick bites. Dogs can contract Lyme disease as well. They should be protected against ticks not only for their own health, but also for yours. Dogs that are untreated can become sick, but they can bring ticks back to your property and inside the home.
There are many different treatment options for dogs on the market, and it is important to understand each one. Some treatments, like shampoos, are kill-on-contact products that only work once the ticks are on the dog.
Other treatments, like collars and topicals, have a residual insecticide and are effective at repelling and/or killing ticks. As a dog owner, you should work with your veterinarian to discuss the best treatment options.
So enjoy the beautiful fall that Pennsylvania has to offer, but remember to be diligent and take precautions against ticks and tick borne diseases.
Pennsylvania leads the nation in Lyme disease, and the ticks that carry this disease are found here in Franklin County. By following the tips in this article you should be able to enjoy the great outdoors, worry-free from ticks and Lyme disease.