Ask Me: Protecting Your Family From Ticks While Hiking
I just stumbled on your amazing blog and ordered your book—I can’t wait to read it! I am completely inspired by your blog. I have one question: I am from the Northeast originally and a cousin of mine had very serious, chronic Lyme disease, which has instilled a huge fear in me of that and other tick-borne diseases. How do you protect your children from these things? Do you spray them down with insect repellent? (I try to avoid chemicals as much as possible.) Thank you so much for your help and your wonderful blog!
Thanks for writing and for following The Big Outside, and for buying my book. I hope you enjoy it.
I grew up in Massachusetts and visit family there every summer. I’ve known people who’ve contracted Lyme disease and it’s horrible if not diagnosed and treated soon. Tick-borne diseases are a bigger problem in some regions, like the Northeast, than other parts of the country, primarily from May through July. This informative paper from the federal Centers For Disease Control points out that 95 percent of Lyme disease cases occur in 12 states, and more than 60 percent of the cases of misleadingly named Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever occur in five states. None of the states on either list are in the West.
That paper also notes that 42 percent of people living where Lyme disease is common reported taking no preventive measures against ticks. See cdc.gov/ticks for more information on preventive measures.
I worry more about protecting my kids from UV exposure, to be honest. But that’s not to dismiss the dangers of ticks. The CDC recommends using insect repellents on exposed skin that contain at least 20 percent DEET (the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends products for kids with up to 30 percent DEET and reapplying every two hours), and treating clothing, boots, and gear like tents with permethrin. The AAP also notes that disease transmission doesn’t usually occur until the tick has been attached for at least 48 hours.
Besides repellents, I think the best strategies are wearing clothing that covers exposed skin in situations that call for it—including tucking pant legs inside socks or gaiters—and inspecting your kids once or twice during a long hike and right after the hike. I’ve plucked many a tick from my kids and myself (as well as, more rarely, leeches). Ticks are easy to remove if you find them quickly. Once it has embedded, it’s a little harder to get one off, but always use tweezers and grip and steadily pull on the tick until it releases. They won’t give up easily; I once had one on my behind and my wife had to pull on it with tweezers for a minute or two to get it off. But it came off.
Ticks are most prevalent in tall grass and at the boundaries of forest and open, grassy areas, and leaf-covered ground. If you’re walking off-trail or on a narrow trail flanked by grass or brush, wear long pants tucked into the tops of socks. Mostly, I tried to make my kids (who are now teenagers) aware of ticks beginning when they were very young—and I find that just telling them, “Check yourself for ticks,” grosses them out enough to inspire them to perform a thorough personal inspection (although it’s critical to show them how to do that, and show them what a tick looks like when you find one). Inspect younger kids yourself. Inspect dogs closely; they run off-trail and often pick up ticks and bring them into the home. There are products for dogs, including tick collars, sprays, and shampoos.
Symptoms of tick-borne diseases can resemble other, more-common illnesses, so if someone becomes ill and you suspect Lyme disease, it’s important to tell your doctor that the sick person has been outdoors recently and possibly exposed to ticks.
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