Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Permethrin key to avoiding ticks

Deer TickAnyone 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.

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29 Responses

  1. Boreas says:


    Thanks for the info. I am a fan of permethrin. I wasn’t aware treated clothing was toxic to cats. Is this true in any amount, or is it just toxic when the fabric is still wet? I didn’t receive any warnings on the clothing I bought that was pre-treated.

  2. Chris says:

    I was about to send some clothes to be treated, then I read Silent Spring in homage to Earth Day… (and saw that the treatment company wouldn’t do underwear.)

    • Worth Gretter says:

      I don’t think it is necessary to treat underwear, only outer clothing. Ticks get on you when you brush against foliage. That’s why I treat my socks, because there is a gap between my boots and my pants. My wife does not treat her socks, because she tucks her treated pants into her tall Bog boots. Any tick who climbs up the boots will reach the permethrin-treated pants and have to bail out or die.

  3. Pufferguns says:

    10 years from now we will find out permethrin will cause infertility,poison our h2o and turn pets into zombies.Also kill all chipmunk,squirrel,bunnies and grouseturn into bibliographies.ENJOY tick free….

  4. Nate says:

    Great advice on the permethrin spray and clothing treatments! Thanks!

    I’ve been using the “The Original Ticked Off Tick Remover” for years. They can be found on Amazon in single or multi-packs, and can be attached to a key chain. It’s essentially a thick plastic measuring spoon with a pie wedge taken out that terminates in a very precise point. I have never had a problem fully removing ticks with it, including their jaws. The trick is to approach with the slot parallel to the ticks body and come under the tick from the tail, lifting the body while you slide towards the head, keeping the spoon pressed firmly into the skin. Obviously the smaller the tick, the more you have clear your approach of hair and other obstacles and you may have to press very firmly.

  5. Marco says:

    Worth Gretter, Thanks. Yes the public needs to be more aware of this quick and easy prevention. I have been using it for well over 20 years and find that the dip method is superior to Sawyers. But Sawyers is extremely easy to apply.

    The big advantage is quantity. You can do all outside cloths: hiking cloths, gardening, your tent, kids play cloths, etc.

    The average dilution concentration for ~38% permethrin (purchased) is about 2oz per gallon. A quart will go a LONG way.

    Yes, dipping and drying will last at least one season which is about 3 times longer than Sawyers, but this is anecdotal…

  6. Nora says:

    Very interesting and formative article ,definitely worth sharing. Thank you!!

  7. Charlie S says:

    Whenever I am home from a trek afield I take a shower and use a scrub brush to scrub my body down with soap so that if a tick is attached the brush will wipe them away. The scrub brush can reach the parts my arms themselves cannot reach. I wasn’t privy to using a brush until my niece mentioned it. All of those years the medical people were advising, “take a shower after being out in the woods and soap yourself down” but never did they mention a scrub brush which made a heckuva lotta sense to me when I heard. It is always wise to not always take the advice from the medical people, or to do research on your own, or pay attention to the advice of others…and go a little further than what the doc’s suggest as they seem to be too often ill-advised themselves, or are too traditional in their ways. Surely all of you have heard your horror stories.!

  8. Susan Weber says:

    I’m going out right now to try to find some. Had a tick in my tummy last week! With dogs, the outdoors and indoors seem to become one. Thanks, Worth…and the ferns are happy here,so thanks for them.
    Susan W.

  9. Marcy Neville says:

    Be aware that permethrin is a neonicitinoid, and is harmful to pollinators.
    When treating your clothing be careful that the spray doesn’t drift onto vegetation, flowers or anything that might be visited by bees and other pollinators.

  10. Charlie S says:

    Also, I forgot to mention, I always have my small bottle of oil of oregano lying around and stick some of that under my tongue perchance a tick has latched on to me, and especially after I am bit. I have been loading up with this oil ever since this pandemic became a household name. It is said to be good for the flu, is anti viral, anti inflammatory, anti bacterial….. I have read that it is a treatment for Lyme disease also. I’ve had oil of oregano at hand for surely twenty years by now….and I am fine, no negative effects that I am aware of. It is very potent oil and you shouldn’t just buy any oregano oil as some are better than others. All of the info is out there. Or not!

  11. Tim-Brunswick says:

    I’m a 72-year-old “Outdoors Person” who during the average May & October peak Tick Season “used to: find anywhere from five to eight attached ticks. I actually have a “refillable” Doxycycline” script at my pharmacy and if I can’t determine (within reason) the length of time a tick has been attached I start the “Doxy Treatment” . My history with ticks goes back some 20 years.

    According to my long-time primary Doctor, I have actually had a mild case of Lyme during this time period, but fortunately no discernible after-effects have been detected.

    What I’m getting at is “Life is a gamble” and sometimes you just gotta roll the dice and pick what seems to be the best path for “you”. As far as I’m concerned “Permethrin”, “Deet” 100% and Sawyer’s Tick Repellents are all trusted friends and have made my life outdoors more enjoyable and healthy than would have been possible without them!

    Could there be negative side effects?….maybe, but the overall benefit is preferable to isolating myself inside and looking out the window (as we all are currently….), instead of interacting with nature one on one… My view only.

    Thank you

    • Boreas says:

      It rarely hurts to stack the deck in your favor. Does yelling “Yo bear!!” in grizzly country help? Who knows, but I do it religiously out west when sight distance is minimal – and have survived so far! But for all I know, it is nothing more than a dinner bell…

  12. Bill Russell says:

    I own a small farm in the mountains of Virginia. Up the mountainside, I have a forest and I spend a good bit of time in the trees, heavy brush, and tall grass. I used to get ticks a lot, but since I started wearing permethrin-treated clothing I’ve had one tick on my shirt that was visibly disoriented. I brushed it off and crushed it with a rock. My dog sleeps on the bed with us and we keep a permethrin-treated blanket for her. Love this stuff

  13. Joyce Galla says:

    I live in Illinois. Ticks are horrible here. Where can I purchase permethrin? Can it be put on dogs?

    • Boreas says:


      Many hardware stores sell it. Also try farm stores. Possibly WalMart. But I get mine on Amazon or eBay, depending on how much I want to buy.

    • Worth Gretter says:

      The bottle pictured in the article, the Sawyer product, is in outdoor stores.
      The pre-treated clothing is available in another place I just learned of:
      They also will treat clothing you already own if you send it in, and it will be good for 70 washes, unlike things you spray at home which are only good for 6 washes.
      And for dogs, the first link in the comments, by Boreas, mentions products for dogs, so ask your vet.

  14. Nicely done…I tell people this is the most effective tool in the box….

  15. Jimmy says:

    Permethrin is my secret weapon against ticks, without a doubt. Very helpful.

  16. I have been using Sawyer’s permethrin for many, many years in black-legged tick country (CT, Champlain Valley), treating my outdoor shoes, socks, and pant legs, and have never had a tick on me. it works!

  17. Valerie says:

    My worry is getting permethrin in the waterways. Wouldn’t that also happen in the wash water?

  18. Zephyr says:

    I’m not so sold on adding more chemicals to my clothing and the environment. And, I’ve hiked and lived in tick country a lot and picked many ticks off of myself, others, and my children. So far no signs of Lyme disease. We are very careful to check and inspect after any day outside. From the National Pesticide Information Center:

    Health effects from permethrin will depend on how someone is exposed to it. Dogs and cats that have permethrin on their skin may act strangely, and flick their paws, twitch their skin or ears, or roll on the ground. Animals that have licked treated skin may drool a lot or smack their lips. Cats that have been exposed by accident to products with high (45-65%) levels of permethrin may seem anxious and can’t walk normally. They may also have muscle tremors and seizures and they may die from the exposure.

    When people get permethrin on their skin, they may have irritation or tingling, burning and itching at that spot. If permethrin gets in the eyes it can cause redness, pain or burning. If people eat permethrin it could cause sore throat, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting. People that have breathed in permethrin have had irritation in the nose and lungs, difficulty breathing, headaches, dizziness, nausea and vomiting.

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