How to Avoid a Tick Attack

Summer’s here, and the living is supposed to be easy. But when uninvited guests like ticks show up, they can threaten your health.

These blood-sucking bugs can cause Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and other infections. Depending on where you live, the type of activities you enjoy, and when you enjoy them, you may be putting yourself at risk of a harmful bite. Luckily, you can protect yourself, and your family.

All About Tick-Borne Diseases

There are several different species of ticks; the ones that carry Lyme disease are primarily concentrated in the Northeast. Thirty thousand cases of Lyme disease will be reported this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Joint pain, persistent fatigue, and neurological damage are some of the lasting effects of Lyme disease. While there’s no reliable test for it, antibiotics prevent the worst consequences.

Ticks carrying Rocky Mountain spotted fever can be found are all over the country; there were close to 2,000 cases reported in 2010. Rocky Mountain spotted fever can be serious or fatal if not treated promptly. Ticks can also transmit potentially fatal diseases such as anaplasmosis, babesiosis, and Powassan virus. Although rare in the US, Powassan virus can cause encephalitis, a dangerous medical condition.

Avoiding Ticks: Insect Repellants, Clothing, and More

Ticks don’t jump, hop, fly, or move very fast, but if you walk in shady areas where tall grass grows, they can easily grab hold of a pant leg and climb around until they find some skin to bite. (They especially like warm spots behind the ears and between the legs.)

To avoid ticks, try these preventives:

1. Insect Repellant. Countless products that claim to repel bugs can be found on the market, but experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Environmental Working Group (EWG), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) say the best way to wage war against summer’s biggest little enemies is insect repellent.

Some repellants contain chemicals, while some are made with natural ingredients such as oil of lemon eucalyptus (aka PMD) or soybean oil. They’re available as aerosols, sprays, liquids, creams, and sticks, though the EWG doesn’t recommend using repellents in pressurized aerosol containers as the mist can hurt your eyes and is easy to inhale. To minimize negative side effects from the ingredients in insect repellents, follow the manufacturer’s directions for proper application carefully.

Using liquids, lotions, or sprays with the repellant DEET (aka N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) is the most effective way to repel ticks, according to the CDC. However, there are side effects associated with the chemical, including skin blisters, blurred speech, and seizures.

Kavita Mariwalla, MD, treats patients sick with tick-borne illnesses every year in her West Islip, NY practice. She recommends using products containing at least 20 percent DEET (but no more than 30 percent) for up to five hours of protection.

However, the dermatologist and mother does not recommend DEET products for babies and young children: "It’s difficult to gauge how much to apply so the chance of over exposure is higher. The other worry is that young children constantly put their hands in their mouths and [they can] ingest it," she says. To protect little ones, cover strollers and baby carriers with netting.

If you’ll be out in the sun, sunscreen is also important, but the CDC and Mariwalla don’t recommend using products designed to both repel insects and protect against harmful rays: "If you are applying sunscreen the way you should be—a golf-ball size application every three hours—you are probably using too much DEET. Solve the problem by first applying sunscreen and then using bug spray."

If you’re wary of DEET, plant-based products containing picaridin (a black pepper derivative) or oil of lemon eucalyptus are less effective, but get the job done.

2. Clothing. Ticks can’t penetrate clothing, so if you are planning to be in a place where ticks tend to congregate, dress accordingly. Wear light-colored long sleeved shirts and long pants to make tick detection easier, and tuck the hems of your trousers into your socks so they’ll there’ll be less exposed skin for the tick to grab onto.

Mariwalla is also a fan of clothing that’s been pre-treated with permethrin (a pesticide), but doesn’t recommend the do-it-yourself kits or permethrin sprays. "Permethrin is quite toxic. We use it in cream form to treat scabies—a type of mite—and it can hurt your skin if not used properly."

3. Environmental Adjustments. Ticks can travel to your backyard courtesy of animal hosts like deer and bats. Ticks prefer warm, moist shady areas, tall vegetation, and woodpiles. To help keep ticks out of your yard, don’t landscape plants that deer eat, and if your lawn borders the woods, separate the areas with a rock border—ticks aren’t likely to traverse dry rocks.

After being outdoors, conduct a thorough tick check. Remove clothing and go through your hair carefully. Use a full-length mirror to assist in areas that are difficult to see. Check pets and children, too.

What Doesn’t Work

Experts from the EWG and the AAP say the following products do not offer effective protection from ticks. Don’t waste your money on:

  • Ultrasonic devices that give off sound waves designed to keep insects away.
  • Citronella candles.
  • Battery-operated devices that clip to clothing and circulate insect repellent.
  • Eating garlic or taking an extra dose of vitamin B.
  • Wristbands treated with chemical repellents.
  • Outdoor "fogger" insecticides.

Kavita Mariwalla, MD, approved this article.


Kavita Mariwalla, MD, West Islip, NY-based dermatologist. Phone interview. June 10, 2014. 

"Protection Against Mosquitos, Ticks and Arthrods." The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed 13 June 2014. 

"EWG’s Advice for Avoiding Bug Bites." Environmental Working Group. Accessed June 13, 2014.

"Insect Repellents. Safety and Prevention." The American Academy of Pediatrics. Accessed June 13, 2014.

"Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF)." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Page last updated November 21, 2013.  

"Permethrin Facts (Reregistration Eligibility Decision (RED) Fact Sheet)." Environmental Protection Agency. Page last updated May 9, 2012.  

"Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSP): Statistics and Epidemiology." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Page last updated September 5, 2013.