Tick Bites

Tips for Preventing and Treating Tick Bites

Ticks are about as popular as Auntie Mabel’s fruitcake at Christmas time. These sneaky bloodsuckers can carry viruses, bacteria, and parasites, and alongside mosquitos are at the top of the vector class when it comes to disease transmission. Unfortunately, they are here to stay, and with peak season in the northern hemisphere currently in full swing, now seems like a good time for a refresher session on tick management from a hiking and backpacking perspective. 

Ten Preventative Measures

Tick exposure can occur all-year-round, but the little blighters are most prevalent during the warmer months. They are generally encountered when walking through long grasses or overgrown, brushy terrain. Considering the serious nature of bug-transmitted maladies such as Lyme disease, a hiker’s best strategy (by far) is to avoid getting bitten in the first place:

1.  Choice of Attire: Appropriate clothing is your first line of defence in tick country. Hat, pants, long sleeve shirt, and shoes (rather than sandals) are all recommended. Be sure to tuck your shirt into your pants and your pants into your socks when hiking through infested sections. Light coloured items are preferable as they make it easier to spot the elusive burrowers.

2.  Permethrin: If you will be hiking in an area that is known to be tick-infested, consider going with permethrin-treated clothing. On that front, there are three options available: 1. DIY Permethrin spray your shirt and pants; 2. Send your items away to be factory treated, or; 3. Purchase pre-treated shirts and/or pants from companies such as ExOfficio and RailRiders (estimated to be effective for up to 70 washes).

Diagram from michigan.gov – Emerging Disease Issues.

3.  Stick to the middle of the trail when walking through overgrown, brushy terrain. Ticks don’t jump, fly, or drop from trees, however, they love nothing better than to ambush unsuspecting hikers that come into contact with long grass or low-lying vegetation.

4.  Breaks: When taking breaks in tick country do not sit directly on the ground, particularly in brushy overgrown areas.

5.  Repellent: For exposed areas of the skin, there are a few different options including DEET, Picaridin, and Oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE). Which is best? According to Outdoor.org: “Available evidence indicates that picaridin and DEET are both effective at repelling black flies, while DEET is more effective at preventing tick bites. Conversely, picaridin seems to be better at repelling other biting insects, notably no-see-ums.” It’s worth noting that Picaridin lasts longer than DEET (up to 14 hours), and unlike its competitor, is virtually odourless, and doesn’t degrade synthetic clothing (e.g. Gore-Tex rain jackets). After many years of using 30% DEET, I made the switch to Picaridin in the mid-2010s.

Ticks can live up to three years. During this time they go through four life stages: egg, six-legged larva, eight-legged nymph, and adult. As shown above, ticks prefer to have a different host animal at different stages of their life (Image from CDC.gov)

6.  Regular Body Checks: In addition to the widely recommended full body check at day’s end, I generally do a series of brief revisions throughout the day when hiking through tick-infested areas. Why? Because ticks usually spend at least thirty minutes to an hour crawling about before they begin burrowing into your skin. The key is to get them before they start digging. Three points to note:

A.  By being diligent about regular checking, you significantly minimise the chances of being bitten.

B.  If you are bitten, chances are you can catch and extract (see below) the little buggers before they are well and truly embedded.

C.  If like myself you are a “shorts” rather than a “pants” hiker, you need to check more often than your trousered brothers and sisters.

Florida Trail, 2011 | During a maddening three-day stretch leading up to the town of St.Marks, I picked off approximately 150 ticks from my person. I was doing checks every 30 to 60 minutes.

7. Clean Your Legs – If you aren’t wearing pants, chances are your legs will regularly be caked in trail grime. That makes it much harder to spot any ticks that may have attached themselves to your lower body. Make a habit of cleaning your legs at or near days end.

8. Check Your Backpack – Give your pack a once over during the day and a thorough check once you set up camp.

9. Hike out of season – A good way of minimising (though not eliminating) your exposure to ticks is simply by hiking when there aren’t so many around. When the weather gets cooler, ticks are less of an issue. That being said, as long as temps are above freezing and the ground isn’t frozen and/or snow-covered, ticks are still capable of attaching themselves to unwitting hosts.

In 2012 I hiked the Appalachian Trail between October 17 and December 28. On a trail well known for its tick issues during the regular hiking season, I didn’t encounter a single one in 73 days (Photo – Maine, October 2012).

10. The Extra Mile – Ticks are on the lookout for dark, hidden, and/or hairy places in which to burrow. That means scalp, armpits, groin, waist, belly button, back of the knees, and you guessed it, the bum crack region. If you really want to be 100% thorough in regards to tick checking, you may just have to put it on one of your fellow hikers to give you a helping hand (or at least a discerning eye), in regards to those hard to review areas. In the spirit of “backcountry” camaraderie, be sure to return the favour. At the very least, politely extend the offer.

Treatment

If a tick breaches your defences and manages to begin burrowing:

1. Remove with tweezers: Press the blades firmly against the skin, one each side of the tick’s head, and then pull the tick straight out. Be careful not to twist, as this could result in leaving part of the tick embedded in your skin which could lead to infection.

Image courtesy of CDC.gov

2.  If the head breaks off during the extraction and it can’t be removed with tweezers, use a sterilized needle to remove the remains.

3. After removing the tick, clean the bite area and your hands with soap and water and/or an alcohol wipe.

4.  Tick-borne Illness: If flu-like symptoms or a suspicious-looking rash appear after being bitten, you may have contracted a tick-borne illness such as Lyme disease. In such cases, it is recommended to seek medical advice ASAP.

Photo courtesy of CDC.gov

 More Information

For more information on ticks, see the following resources:

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