By Joan McIntyre, Extension Master Gardener
Being outdoors—whether in your own yards or walking in the woods—offers solace during this time of social distancing. While ticks are now entering into their most active periods there are some easy steps to protect from these pests and the diseases they can carry.
Knowledge and vigilance—not pesticides—are our best protection from these pests
Understanding the lifecycle and behaviors of ticks is key to protecting ourselves from them. The four most common ticks in Virginia are the lone star tick, blacklegged (formerly deer) tick, American dog tick, and brown dog tick. (The brown dog tick is not known to carry diseases in Virginia.) Different ticks can be vectors for different diseases. Most ticks are active April to September, but adult blacklegged ticks are most active in winter, so it’s important to be aware year-round. The appearance of ticks varies depending on their life stage and whether they are male or female.
The following images of ticks are microscope photographs of samples brought into the Extension Master Gardener Help Desk. Click on each image to see a larger version of each tick.
Information on identifying the American dog tick, lone star tick, and blacklegged tick is available from the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Common Ticks of Virginia and Virginia Department of Health’s Preventing Tick-Borne Diseases in Virginia.
Tick lifecycle and behavior offer insights into the best strategies for protecting ourselves from them.
- Ticks need a blood meal at each stage of their life cycle (larva, nymph, and adult) from hosts like mice, rabbits, deer, birds, dogs, horses, reptiles, and amphibians. Humans are accidental hosts and not preferred.
- Ticks live primarily on the ground in leaf litter and don’t fly or jump. When they’re ready for a blood meal, they wait on grass or shrubs and climb on as a host comes by.
- Not every tick carries disease, but those that do generally must feed 10 or more hours to transmit the pathogen to the host.
Spraying your yard with pesticides to control ticks is ineffective because ticks reside primarily within leaf litter where the sprays cannot reach them, or they are brought in by animal hosts. The pesticides, however, are nonselective and will kill pollinators and other beneficial insects they come in contact with. Research shows that insect populations are in sharp decline in the last several decades as a result of habitat loss and growing use of pesticides. Insects provide essential ecosystem services such as pollinating many food crops and are a critical component of the food web. Without insects, life as we know it would cease to exist.
There are much more effective ways to protect yourself, your family, and your pets and still enjoy the outdoors.
What can you do to protect yourself and your family?
The best strategy for controlling ticks is to manage the areas of your yard where you are most likely to play and relax. You should keep grass cut and clear of leaf litter and create a mulch barrier between wooded areas and lawn and around patios and play areas. Brush piles, which can provide beneficial habitat for local wildlife, should be placed away from heavily trafficked areas. Where possible, try to exclude deer and other wildlife with fences.
When outdoors in areas likely to have ticks, you can take a number of steps to keep ticks away from you, your family, and pets.
- Keep to the center of paths when hiking so ticks cannot crawl on you from shrubs and grasses.
- Wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts, and tuck your pants into your socks. Light-colored clothing makes it easier to see ticks (though it doesn’t keep them away).
- Use insect repellents with ingredients such as DEET (25 percent to 30 percent — but do not use on infants or cut skin), Picardin (20 percent), oil of Eucalyptus, and IR-3535 (ingredient in Skin so Soft) to help prevent tick bites.
- Treat clothes and shoes with Permethrin designed for this purpose, and be sure to follow directions carefully.
- Check with your veterinarian about the best products for protecting your pets.
If you’ve been in an area where ticks are likely, checking yourself, your family, and your pets every four to six hours for ticks when outside will prevent most disease transmission. Put clothes in a hot dryer for at least 20 minutes to kill ticks (washing them won’t do it). You can do the same for pet beds, if your pets have been in tick infested areas.
If you find a tick, grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible with tweezers and pull gently upward. Using fire or alcohol or jiggling it is likely to increase chances of disease transmission or infection. The bite area and your hands should be cleaned with rubbing alcohol, iodine scrub, or soap and water. Not every tick or tick bite transmits disease. But if you develop a rash or fever or other unusual symptoms, see your doctor.
More information is available from these resources:
- Ticks. Centers for Disease Control. May 1, 2021
- “Bugs” & Human Health. Virginia Department of Health. 2020.
- Tick Information and Prevention. Alexandria Health Department. Page updated on Jun 21, 2019.
- Protecting Yourself from Disease Carrying Insects. Arlington Public Health Division. 2019.
The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) is requesting your help to further our understanding of tick ecology in Virginia. Our goal is to better understand which ticks are biting humans as well as the spatial distribution of Virginia’s tick species.
How can you help? If you find a tick or ticks on your person, safely remove it, complete a corresponding survey, and mail it to VDH. Your participation in this project will significantly help develop the picture of tick ecology and risk of tick-borne diseases in Virginia.
Please direct any questions to firstname.lastname@example.org