Anyone paying attention to the rapid rise of tick-borne diseases has heard the advice on avoiding tick bites. The advice we are hearing is not wrong, just very incomplete.
Most information to the public suggests wearing light colored clothing, tucking your pants into your socks, and checking your body carefully after possible exposure. The intent is to keep ticks away from your skin, and to remove them promptly if they succeed in attaching. This was sufficient when Lyme disease was the only real worry, since research has shown the Lyme disease organism is not transmitted until the tick has been attached for hours.
Unfortunately, ticks in our area now carry many more diseases, some of which are transmitted quickly when the tick bites you. It is no longer sufficient just to remove any ticks attached to your body when you come in from the outdoors. It is now essential to avoid being bitten at all.
The single most important way to prevent tick-borne disease is the chemical permethrin. Permethrin is a synthetic insecticide similar to natural chemicals produced by chrysanthemums. It can be used to treat scabies or lice, but for ticks it is applied exclusively to clothing, not to your skin.
Permethrin is advertised as an insect repellant, probably because ticks will drop off treated clothing before being killed. However, permethrin does actually kill ticks. I demonstrated this once by carefully placing a live tick on permethrin treated fabric. The tick walked normally at first, staggered in 10 minutes, and was dead (or at least incapable of moving) in 20 minutes.
Clothing pre-treated with permethrin is available from LL Bean and others under the No Fly Zone brand (not to be confused with athletic clothing from No Fly Zone Apparel). Commercially treated clothing is rated for 70 washes before losing effectiveness.
Clothing you already own can be treated with permethrin spray sold by Sawyer, and it lasts for six washes. Since permethrin protects against many other insects besides ticks, the US military uses it on combat uniforms, and the Centers for Disease Control recommends it.
The last time I bought a bottle of permethrin, I asked the sales associate if they sell very much of it. He said “Oh yeah, a ton of it.” So obviously people know about it and are using it. But in the many articles I have read on prevention of tick-borne illnesses, permethrin is mentioned only in passing, if at all.
Although safe for humans and dogs, permethrin is lethal to cats and fish. Treated clothing must be kept away from cats, and the chemical must never be disposed of down the drain or in any waterway.
In the past I would frequently find ticks on my body when venturing into the woods. But wearing permethrin treated clothing for the last two years, I have not had a single tick. My pants are commercially treated, and my socks, shirt, and hat are all sprayed at home.
If you don’t wear your treated clothing for some reason and you find a tick on your body, it is still urgent to remove it as quickly as possible. There are many devices being sold for this purpose, but all are flawed. They don’t account for how small our deer ticks are, and how firmly they attach. A plastic pry-bar gadget won’t slide under the body of the tick, and won’t exert enough force to remove it. The tweezers you may own probably won’t do it either. You need very fine but very strong tweezers, which are hard to find. And almost always, the mouth parts of the tick will break off and be left in the skin, but this is better than the whole tick remaining attached.
Prevention is the key. Please help get the word out on permethrin treated clothing. In New York alone, thousands of people will eventually acquire Lyme and other tick-borne diseases. Most won’t die – they will instead suffer long-term pain and disability.
Worth Gretter is a resident of Menands NY (just north of Albany), frequent visitor to the Adirondacks, former Respiratory Therapist, and retired Electrical Engineer.