By Tia Ghose, Staff Writer
Published: 06/09/2014 10:48 AM EDT on LiveScience
It's summertime, which means outdoor play, hiking, gardening — and tick bites. The creepy crawlies tend to latch on during the summer months and these arachnids are ubiquitous throughout the U.S.
But tick bites are more than just an annoying spring and summer nuisance. Each year, about 300,000 people in the U.S. catch Lyme disease, which is caused by bacteria, from a tick bite, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates. Thousands more develop tick-borne diseases such as the malarialike disease babesiosis, the flulike anaplasmosis and the Heartland virus infection.
But people can take steps to avoid the nasty critters, beyond the old-standby advice to cover up and avoid tall grass, experts say. From wood chips to a quick ride in the dryer, here are 10 ways to avoid tick bites. [Gross! Watch a Tick Bite in Action]
1. Repel the bugs
Insecticides can be used to repel ticks, said Thomas Mather, a public health entomologist at the University of Rhode Island, and the director of tickencounter.org.
Permethrin, the insecticide found in antimalarial bed nets, kills adult ticks as well as those in their larval stage, called nymphs, which are the likeliest to harbor Lyme disease.
Ideally, people should buy permethrin-treated clothing, socks and shoes, Mather said.
By contrast, evidence suggests that the more common bug spray chemical, N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET), isn't useful against ticks.
"It's not toxic to the ticks," Mather told Live Science. "They still can scurry across a DEET-treated surface, and get to places where the DEET is not," such as a warm human leg, he said.
2. Be vigilant at home
Hiking and camping aren't the most common ways to catch a tick-borne disease, said Kirby Stafford III, the state entomologist at The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and the author of the "Tick Management Handbook."
"We estimate three-fourths of people pick up the ticks in activities in and around the home," with children's play and gardening being some of the riskiest activities, Stafford told Live Science.
Parents should also make sure to do tick checks on children when they come in, he said.
3. Stay in the sun
Tick nymphs have leaky cuticles, or outer covers, that rapidly lose moisture. As a result, they can't survive in environments with lower than 80 percent humidity for more than eight hours, Mather said.
As a result, nymphs congregate in leaf piles in shady, humid environments, so sticking to sunny areas can reduce tick exposure, he said.
4. Change the landscape
Most ticks around homes stay within a few yards of the interface between the yard and a wooded area, Stafford said.
To keep the yard tick-free, use landscaping that deters mice, deer, woodchucks and other rodents that carry ticks, he said. People should also remove tick habitat such as leaf piles, shrubs and groundcover near the house. Play sets should be kept in the sun, away from the shade, he added.
Ticks won't cross a barrier of wood chips placed around the yard's perimeter, perhaps because the dry material makes them dry out too much, he said.
5. Check the dog
Though American dog ticks don't usually harbor diseases that sicken people, the lone star tick can often hitchhike on a pet into the home, so pet owners should check pets for the bugs as soon as they come indoors.
"Give them a good rub down and give them a good spray with the hose. They hate it but you can make it fun," Donohoe said.
6. Cover up
Covering up can prevent ticks from latching on, said Holly Donohoe, a researcher at the University of Florida who studies the health risks of travel and sports.
"Tucking pants into socks is a totally nerdy-looking thing, but in this case it can save you the suffering from a tick-borne disease later on," Donohoe said.
Of course, that advice may be hard to follow during peak tick season, Stafford said.
"In the summer months nobody is going to do that, it's too hot. I don't. I'll be protected from ticks but keel over from heat stroke," he said. Other prevention measures may be more useful when the mercury rises.
7. Lighten up
The clothes people wear should also be light, said Kathryn Berger, a disease ecologist at the University of Calgary in Canada.
"Nymphal ticks are about the size of a poppy seed, so if you wear lighter-colored clothing like light socks, lighter-colored pants, you're going to have an easier time identifying them."
8. Quick dry clothing
Because ticks are so vulnerable to drying out, the hitchhiking parasites can be killed by giving clothing a quick whirl in the dryer on high heat for five minutes, Mather said.
Ticks can survive the wash, and people who have to both wash and dry their clothes may just toss their clothing into a pile for later. It's better to do a quick dry cycle immediately than to let the tick linger, he said.
9. Shower and inspect
After high-risk activities, people should immediately take their clothes off and do a tick inspection and shower. People who are in the habit of showering immediately after outdoor activities are less likely to get Lyme disease, perhaps because they can catch any biting ticks before they've transmitted the disease, Stafford said.
After biting, ticks can take several hours to transmit Lyme disease, said Laura Kramer, the director of the Arbovirus Laboratory at the New York State Department of Health's Wadsworth Center.
10. Remove the tick
If, after taking all these precautions, people do get bitten, they should remove the tick immediately with tweezers or forceps, experts said.
It's important to visit a doctor if flulike symptoms or a suspicious rash appear, and to bring the tick in for testing by a state health department to see if it harbors any diseases, Kramer told Live Science.
Editor's Note: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Kathryn Berger's name.
- The 10 Most Diabolical and Disgusting Parasites
- Top 10 Mysterious Diseases
- Ick! 5 Alien Parasites and Their Real-World Counterparts