An American Dog Tick

"American Dog Tick (Dermacentor variabilis) ♀" by Goshzilla - Dann is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

How to Deal with Ticks: An Adventurer’s Guide to Staying Tick-Free

You may not like them, but ticks are a reality we have to face when it comes to outdoor recreation. They can spread serious disease, so we need to take precautions. From the right clothing to the best repellents, you have options to protect yourself — and your dog — from ticks.

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Ticks are a part of life when it comes to spending time in the woods or cutting through grasslands. When you have enough adventures in the great outdoors, you're going to come across some ticks. Unfortunately, they can carry an assortment of diseases, so you need to protect yourself and your dog. Luckily, you have a few options to choose from. Here's everything you need to know to deal with ticks AND how to remove them safely. How many people do you know that love ticks? I honestly don’t know anyone who cares for the little buggers, but in many parts of the world, they’re simply a part of outdoor adventure. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to protect ourselves from them. They can transmit tons of nasty viruses and diseases like Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Tularemia, and a bunch of other sicknesses I can’t pronounce. Some tick bites can even make you allergic to red meat! In short, you don’t want ticks nibbling on you. Don’t let that stop you from getting out and enjoying the woods this summer — this post will tell you everything you need to know about how to deal with ticks.

Shortly after I published this post, Beth Skwarecki over at Lifehacker published a post detailing the symptoms of several tick-borne illnesses. It makes an excellent companion piece to this one, and if you’re worried about ticks it’s well worth reading.

All Ticks Are Not Created Equal

Growing up in Boy Scouts and camping in the Midwest, I just assumed that ticks were ticks. Not so my friends! Here in the US we have a wide variety of the little arachnids to contend with. I’ve got to tell you, a bit of happiness melted from my life when I learned that we have nine native species of ticks that will bite humans. NINE! Here’s the lineup.

  • American Dog Tick or Wood Tick
  • Black-Legged Tick or Deer Tick.
  • Brown Dog Tick or Kennel Tick
  • Gulf Coast Tick
  • Lone Star Tick or Turkey Tick
  • Rocky Mountain Wood Tick
  • Western Black-Legged Tick
  • Soft Tick
  • Groundhog Tick

We even have an invasive tick species to worry about now — the Asian Longhorn Tick.

These various species don’t all carry the same diseases, so it’s worth learning which tick carries what, and where you’ll likely encounter them. Check out this identification guide which will help you tell the little bastards apart, and let you know what illnesses they carry. Of these ten species, the most common human-biters include the Black-legged or Deer Tick, the Lone Star Tick, and the American Dog Tick.

To help you deal with ticks, here's an identification guide to the ticks most likely to bite humans
These tick species are the most likely to bite humans — but that doesn’t mean that the others won’t try to gnaw on you. They can AND will try to make a meal out of you.

In the past you didn’t have to deal with each and every species. They have natural territories, so you could check and see what ticks you had to worry about where you live or adventure. You should still do that and these CDC maps provide a pretty good place to start, but thanks to climate change and other factors a lot of these ticks have started to spread into new areas.

We Need to Protect Ourselves

The incidence of tick-borne diseases continues to climb. Not good news for those of us who spend time in the woods. And don’t think that cool weather will protect you from them; many ticks will remain active in temperatures as low as 30 degrees Fahrenheit. We need to make sure that we protect ourselves accordingly. Luckily there are some pretty simple steps we can take to keep ticks from getting too comfortable on our skin.

Contrary to what I learned in Scouts, ticks don’t hang out in trees and drop down on you from above. They tend to attach to the legs of passing animals — and people — close to the ground. They can crawl up the body pretty quickly, but they’ll most likely start on your feet or legs. You can use this to your advantage.

Look at all of these ticks!
Look at all these ticks! “Olive’s Ticks” by Waldo Jaquith is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

An Ounce of Prevention…

I would much rather deal with ticks before they get their fangs (or hypostomes) into my skin. That’s not always possible, but we can do our best to avoid them in a few different ways.

Wear the Right Clothes

One of the best ways to protect yourself is by wearing long pants and closed-toe shoes. If your pants are light-colored, you’ll likely spot ticks more readily as they make their way up your legs. In areas with lots of ticks, you should also consider tucking your pants into your socks. You may look silly, but that beats contracting Lyme Disease.

Perform Regular Tick Checks

Because they can climb so fast, you should check for ticks on your pants, shoes, and socks. Do this on a regular basis so you can catch them before they make their way under your clothes. Give everything a quick looking over. If you find a tick, you can flick it off into the woods. This is one of the best ways to deal with ticks — a routine inspection every so often will catch the little pests before they have a chance to bite you.

Light colored pants make it easier to deal with ticks because you'll see them more readily.
Light-colored pants make it easier to spot ticks as they climb your legs.

Make sure you perform a thorough tick check when you get home as well. I always give myself a good going-over in the shower and as I dry off. Check your armpits and crotch — ticks love spots that get hot and moist, and it’s better to catch them sooner rather than later.

Use Deet or Other Repellants

Of course, in tick-heavy areas, regular checks may not be enough. You should also use repellents to deter ticks from attaching to you. DEET is probably the most common and effective, and is readily available at pretty much any store. It comes in most brands of mosquito and tick repellents, but I’m a fan of OFF! Deep Woods. I’ve had pretty good success at keeping ticks (and other bugs) off of me by using this appropriately. That has about 25% DEET, which is good for around four hours. Higher concentrations of DEET don’t do a better job of deterring ticks but will last longer. OFF! Deep Woods Sportsman has 98.25% DEET and is effective for ten hours. As with all things, conditions will affect the effectiveness and longevity, and your mileage may vary.

Be warned, DEET can dissolve certain plastics, so exercise caution when applying it around tents. That may sound scary, but DEET is safe for humans and to use around animals, with one exception — DEET can be toxic to fish. If you intend to be in or around the water, you’ll want to use an alternative. Picardin provides another reliable option.

Picardin repels mosquitoes as well as DEET and while not as quite as effective at tick prevention, it comes pretty damn close. Of the Picardin-based products I’ve used, I’ve had the best results from  Sawyer Premium Insect Repellent. I found it effective for mosquitoes and other bugs, and didn’t have any ticks on me at the end of the day, even when hiking through tall grass.

If I had to choose one or the other, I would pick DEET, unless I was going to be in or around a lot of water.

Treat Your Clothes with Permethrin

DEET and Picardin repel ticks. Permethrin kills them. Quickly. That said, you can’t use Permethrin on your skin — not because it’s dangerous, but rather because it will break down on human skin in about 15 minutes, leaving you unprotected. The solution? Treat clothing with Permethrin and use DEET on any exposed skin. That’s the best of both worlds.

You can buy clothing that comes pre-treated, or you can buy your own and treat the clothes that you already have. I recommend Sawyer’s Permethrin for this — it will last for about six weeks or six washes before you need to treat again. If nothing else, give your boots and socks a light spray before you head out into the woods.

Treating clothing with Permethrin is a great way to deal with ticks — as it kills them on contact
This Permethrin spray from Sawyer is an effective way to protect yourself.

NOTE: Use caution with Permethrin if you have a cat — while safe for humans and most other animals, it is toxic to cats. For safety’s sake, keep your treated clothes away from your kitties!

Natural Repellents

DEET, Picardin, and Permethrin are all safe when used as directed. I understand that some people prefer not to use chemicals, but these really are the most effective ways to prevent tick-borne diseases. There are some effective natural repellents, but they simply don’t provide the same effectiveness over time that the previously mentioned repellents do. That said, the CDC does provide information on some natural tick repellents that do work for certain tick species.

Your best bet for a more natural store-bought solution is REPEL Plant-Based Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent. It uses Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus to repel mosquitoes and ticks (as opposed to Lemon Eucalyptus Oil, which is worthless). You can expect to smell a bit lemony after you apply it, but it does a solid job. It works about as well as DEET for repelling mosquitoes, but is not as effective at driving away ticks. Additionally, it doesn’t have the long-lasting effects of DEET, wearing off in just an hour or two. Just keep in mind that you will need to reapply more often if you use this repellent.

Repel Plant-Based Lemon Eucalyptus helps deter ticks
If you want a more natural approach, oil of lemon eucalyptus is your best bet for repelling ticks.

Home-remedies like vinegar, vanilla, Listerine, dish-soap and all those other concoctions don’t work. Most natural remedies and oils do not work. If you want to protect yourself from serious tick-borne diseases, skip that stuff and pick up some DEET, Picardin, Permethrin, or Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus — all of which are safe and effective. If you absolutely must avoid the above options, check out the CDC’s list of effective natural repellents.

How to Deal with Ticks on Your Body

If you have a tick crawling around on you but it hasn’t embedded itself in your skin yet, then you can just pick it off and discard it. No harm, no foul. It’s only after they embed in your skin that it gets hard to deal with ticks. So let’s say that happens — you find a tick after it has managed to get itself dug into your skin. What do you do?

An American Dog Tick
“American Dog Tick (Dermacentor variabilis) ♀” by Goshzilla – Dann is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

I’ve heard a lot of advice on this matter in the last 30 years. Almost all of it bad. Here are a few things NOT to do to remove an embedded tick.

  • Don’t cover the tick in alcohol, fingernail polish remover, fingernail polish, or dish soap.
  • Don’t try to burn it off with a match or cigarette.
  • Don’t apply essential oils.
  • Don’t pinch the tick between a blade and a nail to try to walk it back out.
  • Don’t scratch it off or try to twist it out.

At best, these techniques simply don’t work. At worst, they will agitate the tick, and break off it’s mouth parts in your skin leading to infection. Yet every spring and summer I see the same information getting passed around Facebook. Skip all that. There are two very simple ways to deal with ticks once they become embedded.

Method 1. Use a Tick Key

Using a tick key is one of the easiest ways to deal with ticks that have embedded themselves in your skin
This is a tick key, for those who are unfamiliar.

A tick key is simple and easy to use. Just put the opening over the tick, then pull the key down until the tick is caught in the narrowest part of the opening. One smooth pull will safely remove the entire tick, including the head. This works great on dogs who don’t necessarily sit still for tick removal, but it will get the job done equally well on any person with an embedded tick. They’re pretty inexpensive too — you can pick up a set of 3 for $15 on Amazon. I keep one in our first aid kits and one in the truck, just in case.

Method 2. Use Tweezers

You can effectively remove embedded ticks with tweezers as well. Here’s the CDC’s instructions on how to do so:

1. Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible.

2. Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don’t twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouth-parts to break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, remove the mouth-parts with tweezers. If you are unable to remove the mouth easily with clean tweezers, leave it alone and let the skin heal.

3. After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.

4. Never crush a tick with your fingers. Dispose of a live tick by putting it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag/container, wrapping it tightly in tape, or flushing it down the toilet.

A graphic from the CDC showing how to remove a tick with tweezers
This graphic from the CDC shows how to remove a tick using tweezers.

Keep an Eye on The Bite

Once you’ve removed an embedded tick and cleaned the area, you want to keep an eye on the removal site and pay attention to your health. If you develop a fever or start to get a rash, see a doctor right away. The same goes for if you start to feel fatigued or have a persistent headache. Lyme Disease will often cause a distinct bullseye shaped rash, but not always. Even if it’s several weeks since you removed the tick, if you start to exhibit any symptoms you want to make sure that you don’t have any tick-borne illnesses. That includes Lyme Disease. Let your doctor know about the tick bite, where you think you picked up the tick, and when it bit you.

The bullseye rash indicates Lyme Disease following a tick bite
This woman has developed the trademark bullseye rash on her upper arm, indicating Lyme Disease. The center of the bullseye is the site of the tick bite. Photo by James Gathany/CDC.

How to Protect Your Dog from Ticks

This post focuses mostly on human adventurers, but since I take Inkling into the field with me on a regular basis I wanted to include some information on how to protect our dogs from ticks as well. To that end, I reached out to my veterinarian friend Jess to get some professional advice on the best way to deal with ticks for our four-legged friends.

Her advice? Matching tick preventatives to the lifestyle of the pet and owner. If your dog doesn’t like oral preventatives, the water-resistant  Scalibor Collar from Merck Animal Health will protect your dog from fleas and ticks for up to six months, so long as they keep it on. Monthly chewables like Credelio from Elanco and Simparica by Zoetis make great options if your dog doesn’t mind eating them. If you’d rather not give a chewable every month, Bravecto chewables from Merck make a great option, and you can give them once every three months. These are what we use for Inkling, and she gobbles them down pretty readily. Talk to your vet to help figure out what will work best for your adventure-pup.

Ink spends a lot of time outside, so we invest in good preventatives to deal with ticks.
If you and your dog have active outdoor lifestyles, you need to invest in tick prevention.

Remember how ticks remain active in temperatures as low as 30 degrees? That means that in a lot of areas, ticks are active for the majority of the year. For that reason, Jess recommends that dogs get tick prevention year-round, which we do with Inkling. She also recommends talking to your vet about vaccinating against Lyme Disease if your dog has an outdoor lifestyle.

How to Deal with Ticks Embedded on Your Dog

First of all ticks, how dare you. Stay off of my best friend! For those of you who have followed the blog for awhile, you may remember a post about Inkling getting swarmed by ticks. Most of the offenders never had the opportunity to attach themselves to her, but we did have to remove a few ticks that had embedded themselves on her paws and between her pads. She was very patient with us as we did so, but I know it wasn’t a pleasant experience.

You can use the tweezers or tick key methods on dogs. The tick key works well overall, but in some areas — like between the pads — you may not have enough room to snag the buggers without using tweezers. If your dog gets covered in a lot of ticks, you can use a tick shampoo to kill all of the ticks on contact. We had to do this when Inkling got swarmed with ticks, but remember that you shouldn’t use this in place of a good preventative.

How to deal with ticks on an outdoorsy dog
Tick shampoo is not a replacement for a good tick preventative, especially if your dog spends a lot of time in the woods, like Ink.

If any ticks bit or embedded themselves, pay attention to your dog’s behavior, appetite, and energy levels. If you notice any changes, visit your vet and give them the details on the tick bite. Better safe than sorry.

Nothing’s Perfect

No matter how careful you are, if you spend enough time in the field you’ll eventually get a tick on you. Hopefully you’ll find it before it has a chance to embed itself, but at least you know how to deal with the little buggers if they do manage to latch on. Whatever you do, don’t let ticks keep you from enjoying your time outside. You don’t have to be paranoid if you make sure that you’re prepared.

Most adventurers have to deal with ticks at one point or another. Just keep the right clothing and repellents handy, and don’t forget to do regular tick-checks when you’re hiking and camping, and you’ll handle the little parasites like a pro.

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