BuzzFeed may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page if you decide to shop from them. All products were independently selected by our editors, and the prices were accurate and items in stock at the time of publication.
I was thrilled when I was able to work remotely from Montauk, a beach community at the tip of Long Island, for most of June. I knew my dog, Dolly, would love the chance to experience walks in nature as opposed to the New York City streets.
Little did we know that this picturesque environment would introduce a new stressor that we were both unprepared for: ticks. By the end of my first week in Montauk, we had found close to a dozen ticks nestled in Dolly’s thick, dark fur, and my mom returned from a hike with three small ticks burrowed into the skin around her ankles.
If you feel like you’re hearing more about ticks and Lyme disease now than ever before, that’s because they’ve both become increasingly common in the United States. Changes in habitat, land use, and climate, among other factors, are thought to contribute to the ongoing rise of ticks and tick-borne diseases. In 2017, a record number of 42,743 Lyme disease cases were reported to the CDC, making it the sixth most common of all the reported infectious diseases and conditions.
I quickly had to come up with a game plan to protect my dog and myself from ticks this summer, which included finding the right products to avoid ticks as well as remove them.
What you need to know about ticks
The first thing to know about ticks is they aren’t all the same — the risk of catching a germ from one varies by the species, your location, and how long the tick is attached to your body, said Thomas Mather, an entomologist and director of the TickEncounter resource center at the University of Rhode Island.
Blacklegged ticks, also known as deer ticks, are the most likely to be carrying Lyme disease. They are found in the eastern US; however, only about 1 in 4, depending on your location, are thought to carry the bacterium that causes Lyme.
In comparison, about 1 in 10 or 1 in 15 lone star ticks carries a germ that causes ehrlichiosis, which triggers fever, chill, headache, and other symptoms. (Lone star ticks are found in the southeastern or eastern US and can have a prominent white spot on them.) The American dog tick, which is found east of the Rocky Mountains and some parts of the Pacific Coast, can carry bacteria that cause potentially dangerous Rocky Mountain spotted fever, but less than 1 in 100 are thought to be carrying them.
“The first thing not to do [if you pull a tick off your body] is to panic and throw it away, because then you’re not likely to ever find out what type of tick it is and you’re going to make assumptions,” Mather said. “Your next assumption is that you’re going to get Lyme disease. You’re going to worry about it until you go to the doctor, and then the doctor isn’t going to see the tick because you threw it away.”
If you upload a picture of the tick to TickSpotters, Mather said, you can get help identifying the species and information that will help with next steps.
If you are bitten by a blacklegged tick, your doctor may prescribe you a prophylactic round of antibiotics (the standard treatment is 14 days of doxycycline). However, if it’s not a blacklegged tick, there’s no approved strategy to prevent any type of infection, Mather said.
How to remove a tick
The natural reaction upon finding a tick on a human or animal is to pull it off as quickly as possible, but it’s important to know how to remove it properly. The front end of a tick — where the mouthparts are attached to your body — is basically a little straw that can allow germs inside the tick to travel into your body. If you squeeze the back end in an attempt to extract the tick, you could end up pushing the germs through that straw.
“The germs are in the back part of the tick,” Mather said. “They come from the stomach of the tick into the salivary glands and then out through the mouthpart.”
That’s why Mather said it’s essential to come in horizontally with a very pointy pair of tweezers and grasp the tick just behind the head or mouthparts before pulling it out. That way, you won’t squeeze the back of the tick, increasing your chances of removing the body of the tick and all the germs still inside it.
If you pull the tick off and the mouth stays embedded, it’s not the end of the world. You can disinfect the area to avoid any minor skin infections and wait.
“The mouthpart will work itself out, a little like a splinter, in a reasonably short period of time,” Mather said.
The quicker you remove the tick the better, since it takes time — usually hours — for germs to travel from the tick into your body.
Tips for tick prevention
The way to avoid getting sick from a tick is to avoid getting bit in the first place. Unfortunately, as much as everyone likes to use “natural” products, they’re simply not as effective as the heavier-duty options to repel insects and arachnids (which ticks are). Mather and his team have done extensive testing on more than 30 natural options, and most of them had disappointing results compared to traditional bug repellants.
“People should focus on things that are effective when it comes to ticks because the tick is potentially going to give you something that could make you sick,” he said. “Just because they like to use natural products doesn’t mean that they’re going to be effective for them.”
The most effective active ingredient to repel ticks is an insecticide called permethrin. It’s safe to use directly on dogs, but not cats. (If you’re worried about your cat, there are collars and other topical flea and tick repelling treatments that are safe to use on them.)
Since it can cause irritation when applied directly to human skin, the best course of action is to treat your shoes, clothing, and gear with permethrin before wearing or using them. (If you have a cat, make sure to keep the chemical away from them and that clothing is completely dry before coming into contact with your pet.)
Once the insecticide has been applied properly and dried onto your clothing, you should be able to put everything through the wash and retain the protective effects. If you don’t trust yourself to do it properly, Mather suggested sending your clothes to a company called Insect Shield to treat them for you. You can also buy pretreated clothing and equipment directly from retailers like REI and L.L.Bean.
“Definitely wearing permethrin-treated clothing when you get ready to step outside for an adventure is the way to go,” Mather said. “You have to think about it a little bit in advance, but if it’s treated on the inside as well as the outside, it will slow them [ticks] down even if they get trapped in clothing. It’s really a strategy that we think would benefit a lot of people, but unfortunately not a lot of people use it right now.”
The permethrin route, as well as wearing light-colored clothing (so you can see the ticks), long sleeves, leg-protecting pants, and high socks can help. You should also avoid high grass and brush, walk in the center of a trail, tuck in your shirt to increase the chance of a tick falling off or you seeing it before it’s able to bite you, check yourself (and your pets and children) for ticks, and shower after spending time outdoors.
Also keep in mind that certain products, like chewable medicine for dogs that your vet can prescribe, don’t help prevent a tick bite; the tick has to actually bite the dog in order to get a dose of the poison that will kill it.
“It’s not like it’s emitted through the skin or anything like that,” Mather said. “Many of those products now are very fast acting, but it still requires a tick bite to happen for it to work.”
For those who are thinking ahead, these are some products you can use to help both you and your dog avoid ticks and tick-borne diseases.