The old nighttime family routine of bath, teeth-brushing and a bedtime story has a new addition: the evening hunt for ticks.
In our household, this daily occurrence during the warmer months involves my wife and me hovering over our two naked children with flashlights, analyzing their skin like alien visitors in search of a tiny black speck that could irrevocably change their lives.
It sucks, it's exhausting, and it's the last thing you want to do after a long day. But gone are the innocent days of 20 to 30 years ago when hiking through woods or fields in the Northeast meant at worst a bee sting or scratched legs. Try it today and you might bring home with you a blacklegged tick — a tiny, near-indestructible arachnid capable of transmitting a cocktail of nasty diseases with one bite.
To make matters worse, they can be tiny — really tiny. Below is a photo of one tick we recently pulled off our son during our nightly tick patrol.
What's crazy is that we discovered this nymph during high summer, in the middle of one of the worst droughts to ever hit New York state, and in the face of several news articles stating that tick populations were "taking it on the chin" from the dry conditions.
Nope. Can't relax. Can't get lazy. Must keep checking. This is the new reality. And if it isn't already, it may soon be yours too.
According to a new study published earlier this year in the Journal of Medical Entomology, ticks are found in 49 percent of U.S. counties across 43 states. That's up from 1998, when ticks were present in 34 percent of U.S. counties across 41 states.
A warming world, which allows tick species to survive through increasingly mild winters, may be part of the reason for their swift expansion. Just this month, researchers published evidence of several populations of disease-carrying ticks setting up shop in, of all places, Alaska.
"We've been isolated ... because we've been cold and haven't had ticks here," Kimberlee Beckmen, a wildlife veterinarian with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and a co-author of the study, told the Alaska Dispatch News. "We're very vulnerable and tick-borne diseases are the most rapidly spreading diseases in the U.S."
The distribution of the blacklegged tick in the U.S. as of 2015. Red and Green denote established populations, while blue and yellow indicate reported tick incidents. (Photo: Oxford Journals)
Beckmen's right. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ticks trump mosquitoes as carriers of the fastest growing vector-borne infectious disease in the U.S. It's estimated that every year, more than 300,000 Americans are diagnosed with Lyme disease, with fewer than 50 percent recalling a tick bite.
“This new preliminary estimate confirms that Lyme disease is a tremendous public health problem in the United States, and clearly highlights the urgent need for prevention,” Paul Mead, chief of epidemiology and surveillance for the CDC's Lyme disease program, said in 2013.
SInce then, you'd think our world would be awash in tick prevention PSAs, encouragements for nightly body checks, and other preventative measures. But that's not the case. I barely know anyone else who checks their kids, much less themselves every night, after a day of playing outside.
And to be honest, I get it. Worrying is exhausting. You want to go outside and enjoy nature, not gingerly step through it in fear. I want my kids to be able to announce they're going to go build a fort and not immediately think about the infectious diseases they'll pick up along the way. But to get back some of that innocence, recognizing the threat and taking steps to reduce it is increasingly necessary. And so, for us at least, we both embraced and declared war on these tick bastards.
Phase One: Attack the yard
Wherever serious grass-rolling, soccer-playing, lightning-bug catching activities occur in the yard, we do our best to keep the grass as short as possible. Ticks absolutely hate dry conditions and will flee grass shorter than 3 inches. We also employed the assistance of 10 chickens to roam the yard and gorge themselves on any ticks they might find. The fresh eggs every morning are simply a bonus. Because ticks love shady, moist areas, we also removed a tremendous amount of brush and other overgrown areas to invite more light and dry conditions.
Phase Two: Remove the rodents
While deer are often associated with Lyme disease, it's actually rodents who carry the bacterium responsible. Ticks pass it on to us after overwintering in the nests of rodents, most commonly the white-footed mouse, and feeding on their blood. The theory goes that by eliminating rodents, you might substantially reduce the amount of ticks that could pass along an infectious disease.
We own a couple of outdoor barn cats, which is one weapon against rodents. But because our cats are less inclined to work during the winter, we turned to another solution: tick tubes. These ingenious glorified toilet paper rolls contain cotton balls soaked in a solution of permethrin, an insecticide that kills ticks. You spread them out all over your yard in places where mice might reside: bushes, wood piles, garages, et cetera. During the fall, when the mice are building up their nests for winter, they stumble upon the comfortable cotton balls and bring them back to their nests. While the mice remain unharmed, the ticks present in the nest are instantly killed by the permethrin.
While I can't say for sure that the tick tubes have reduced our population of blood-sucking arachnids, we have noticed that months later most of the tubes are devoid of their cotton balls. So it's a good bet an impact is being made somewhere.
Phase Three: Treat skin and clothing
To keep ticks at bay from our clothing and skin, we use a two-pronged approach. The first includes coming up with a couple outfits to wear when we know we're going to go on a hike through the woods or do anything else where ticks might be prevalent. We then take these outfits and spray them down to the point of soaking in a solution of permethrin designed specifically for clothing. Once dry, it's completely odorless and will provide 100 percent protection. We can wash the treated clothing up to six times without diminishing the product's effectiveness. The application is non-toxic to humans and registered for use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Unfortunately, permethrin won't work on skin. To keep ticks from latching on during the summer months of shorts and T-shirts, we lean on some all-natural, homemade sprays. There are plenty of recipes out there, but we've had success with this vinegar and almond oil-based solution from OhSimply.
Phase Four: Evening screening
Because ticks have had millions of years to evolve into the supervillains they are today, the first three phases above do not always work. In fact, when it comes to tick prevention, the best thing you can do for yourself and your family is to get into a routine of checking each other as often as possible. Ticks love to hide in tight spaces on the body — belly button, in-between the toes, behind the ears, the edge of the hairline, under the armpit, and well, you get the picture. This means that having a flashlight handy to really examine your loved one is imperative. Thankfully, once you get really good at it, the entire process takes less than 2 to 3 minutes.
Our favorite ways to remove a tick
Hooray! You found a tick. I won't lie: We try to make the discovery of one of these monsters attached to our children a happy affair. This way, they won't freak out over the internal horror we're really feeling. It also makes the whole removal process much less stressful.
For ticks in easy-to-reach places on the body, we generally employ some good old-fashioned tweezers to remove them. This video shows how to do it:
For areas less conducive for this method (or for a stressed-out kid), we use nothing more than dish soap and a cotton ball. All this method involves is taking the soap, dabbing it on top of the tick, and then moving the cotton ball in a gentle circular motion on top. After a few minutes, the tick will come right out. We've used this method with 100 percent accuracy the last several bites.
Doesn't all of the above sound like fun? Believe me, it's annoying to have to have to do it at all, but such is the new world we live in. My kids will forever have childhood memories that include their parents examining them with flashlights. And, as there are no signs of ticks abating their march across the U.S., they'll do the same with their kids.
Most importantly, I implore those of you reading this who enjoy nature in areas with known tick populations to be vigilant. Take two minutes to check yourself or your loved ones after a hike, camping trip or picnic lunch in the grass. One simple look could save you from a lifetime of aches and pains. Just don't forget the flashlight.