How To Avoid Tick Bites This Summer: Your Best Bet for Preventing Tick Bites
(Originally published May 20, 2017; last updated May 2020) Summer is just around the corner in the Northern Hemisphere. Are you ready to protect your kids from tick bites?
Since at least 2017, it seems that each spring brings fresh warnings from U.S.-based scientists about increased risks for Lyme Disease. As summers become hotter and wetter,
- tick populations rise across the northern half of the U.S.,
- ticks become more prevalent in the southwest (whose usually-arid conditions help keep numbers low),
- and “tick season” starts earlier/ends later throughout the U.S. (In parts of the southeastern US, “tick season” is now year-round!)
This is why scientists keep warning us of increasing dangers from ticks and the diseases they carry:
- As maps from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show, ticks carrying Lyme disease – like the blacklegged tick in the video below – now live all over the continental United States.
- Ticks carrying other diseases live in all 48 contiguous states. Moreover, 47 of those states had reported cases of Lyme disease by 2015; only Alaska, Hawaii, and Oklahoma had no reported cases
- By 2018, Lyme disease cases were also reported in Alaska, and as far away as the U.S. territory of Guam.
- In 2019, a year when 1/3 of deer ticks sampled were carriers of Lyme Disease, Maine reported record numbers of Lyme Disease as well as two other tick-borne illnesses.
All this means that if you live in the U.S., you need to know how to prevent tick bites.
But it’s not just U.S. experts warning each spring about preventing tick bites:
The US wasn’t the only nation worrying about the increase in ticks and their diseases after recent mild winters. Mild winter weather means more mice, which means more animal hosts for disease-carrying ticks, which means higher tick populations.
And more ticks equals bad news for anyone wary of Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Powassan Virus, and other tick-borne infections:
- According to a 2008 report, the bacteria that causes Lyme Disease had reached Canada, Europe, and even parts of Africa and South America.
- By early 2017, news sources from Canada to the British Isles warned of increased risk of tick bites.
- In late summer 2019, British researchers announced that the actual prevalence of Lyme Disease in the UK could be as much as three times higher than their previous estimates.
- And as of 2020, with fast-growing tick populations on every continent (even Antarctica!), experts such as author Mary Beth Pfeiffer have declared Lyme Disease to be “pandemic.”
In other words, knowing how to prevent tick bites is critical regardless of where you live or travel.
So let’s assume you’re a parent who wants to protect your kids from tick bites. What do you do?
Enter my friend Renée. Several springs ago, she asked what we used for bug repellent. She was looking for an effective, all-natural mosquito repellent, though she also wanted to avoid tick bites. In other words, she wanted something that would prevent tick bites without DEET.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reviewed DEET several times and maintains it’s generally safe to use, though they acknowledge it causes “skin irritation” in some users.
Yes, some parents have reported nervous-system problems in children exposed to DEET. Official sources maintain that this is due to not following instructions and warnings for proper use. (Popular Science notes that the number of severe cases is extremely low, and the problems can’t be conclusively linked to DEET use anyway.)
But Renée’s question got me wondering: How well DO insect repellents work against ticks? (Ticks are, after all, more closely related to spiders than mosquitoes.)
News reports of this year’s especially-bad tick season, which usually end with something like “apply bug repellent,” weren’t very helpful. And family-camping season is rapidly approaching.
So I did some research. This is what I learned.
Unless you’re new to tick-borne illnesses, you probably already know the standard advice. But it’s worth repeating anyway:
To protect your kids from tick bites,
- DON’T take them tromping through the underbrush. When you and yours must be outside, stick to shorter grass and stay on the center of trails.
- DO wear long pants and long sleeves in light colors, plus a hat or bandana.
- DO tuck pants legs into light-colored socks.
- And above all, DO conduct a tick check as soon as you’re done outside. Pay close attention to armpits, groin, and other warm areas where ticks like to hide. Then run those play clothes through a hot dryer for 10 minutes, to kill any ticks on them.
- Also protect your pets against ticks, and check them after they’ve been outside.
So, once you’ve covered those bases,
Which insect repellent will protect your kids from tick bites?
Here’s a rundown of the more common insect-repellent active ingredients, and how well they work against ticks and mosquitoes:
With one exception (see below), these provide little protection from mosquitoes. In tests conducted by the independent organization Consumer Reports, repellents based on natural oils generally repelled mosquitoes for only 30-60 minutes.
Moreover, as American Academy of Pediatrics physicians have noted, these oils can cause severe allergic reactions in some users, and we don’t really know how well they work against ticks. The Center for Wilderness Safety deems them ineffective tick repellents.
While Consumer Reports testing found that some natural-oil formulas offer limited tick protection, personally, I’d rather use something that will work against ticks AND mosquitoes.
Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus
This was the only naturally-based ingredient that Consumer Reports gave decent marks for repelling both ticks AND mosquitoes. This makes it an encouraging all-natural option.
With one major caveat: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, oil of lemon eucalyptus isn’t safe for kids under three years, because of possible skin irritation or allergic reaction. (That would include my friend Renée’s kids. Sorry, Renée!)
This active ingredient has been widely used in Europe for over three decades now. While it does well on tests against ticks and one type of mosquito, it does poorly against another common mosquito variety.
Again, though, there are caveats. One, you need to make sure the concentration of IR3535 is high enough to be effective; lower concentrations (7.5%) don’t protect well at all. Second, avoid products containing IR3535 (or any bug repellent) plus sunscreen. Because sunscreen needs to be reapplied more often than bug repellents, you’ll either come up short on sun protection, or overdose on repellent.
Picaridin (aka KBR 3023), the top-selling repellent ingredient in Europe and Australia, is still relatively new to the United States. Nonetheless, it’s the only non-DEET repellent that the American Academy of Pediatrics even mentions as a DEET alternative.
Whether it works against ticks depends not so much on who you ask, as on the concentration you’re using. According to Consumer Reports, products containing 20% picaridin repel both mosquitoes and ticks for much longer than those with lower concentrations.
And while opponents of DEET will like that picaridin won’t melt plastics or your clothes – as DEET has been known to do – it hasn’t been around as long as DEET, so it hasn’t been studied as thoroughly.
DEET, first invented by the U.S. Army in 1946, is the most-studied bug repellent around. It’s widely considered safe for human use and effective at repelling mosquitoes. Popular Science calls it “the best insect repellent humans have ever invented.”
Yes, it melts some plastics. And watch crystals. So you might want to avoid it for those reasons.
But I still wondered: Does it effectively repel ticks?
DEET and ticks
The answer, again, is “it depends.” Consumer Reports recommends products containing 15-30% DEET for long-lasting tick prevention. But one 25% DEET product they tested did poorly at long-term tick control, and concentrations less than 10% also didn’t protect as long.
And this is where it gets tricky, if you’re a parent who wants to protect your kids from tick bites:
- The higher the percentage of DEET (up to 30%, at least), the longer it’s effective at repelling mosquitoes and ticks.
- However, The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends DEET only for children older than 2 months. Health Canada recommends only very limited use for children age 6 months-2 years, and none for kids under 6 months.
- It’s also generally advised that parents apply DEET products to children no more than once per day.
- And according to the medical professionals behind UpToDate.com, you need to reapply DEET (at concentrations of at least 20%) every two hours for effective tick protection.
- Furthermore, Health Canada recommends no more than 10% DEET concentrations for children ages 2-12. Even though the Canadian Paediatric Society acknowledges this concentration is too low to repel ticks for very long.
So yes, the Appalachian Mountain Club tells its members that DEET trumps picaridin against ticks.
But the more I read, the more I found an even better option:
The BEST way to protect your kids from tick bites is to
Dress them in permethrin-treated clothing
- This is the strategy the University of Rhode Island’s Tick Encounter Resource Center recommends.
- It’s what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends (along with using DEET and staying in the center of trails).
- It’s what the U.S. Department of Defense uses for its troops, along with DEET repellent on skin.
But if you have to choose between DEET on your skin and permethrin-treated clothing, choose permethrin. According to Tom Grier, a Lyme Disease researcher at University of Minnesota-Duluth Medical School, “permethrin wins hands-down.”
As American Academy of Pediatrics doctors and many others have noted, permethrin is “the most effective repellent for ticks.” Whereas skin repellents act to repel ticks, contact with permethrin actually KILLS the ticks in 5-30 seconds.
What is permethrin?
Permethrin is a synthetic version of a naturally-occuring insecticide found in chrysanthemums.
Not only does it kill ticks, it also kills mosquitoes. So effectively, in fact, that permethrin-treated clothes are what the CDC recommends for protection against the Zika virus.
Even better, it’s non-toxic to humans once dried. And honestly, the CDC’s cautionary notes on permethrin sound pretty common-sense to me, anyway: don’t get the liquid form into your eyes, on your skin, or into your lungs, because it could cause irritation. (Worth repeating: Permethrin is for your clothing, NOT YOUR SKIN.)
Also worth noting: while drying, it’s toxic for cats. And though it’s great for killing mosquitoes and ticks, it’s also highly toxic to honeybees, fish, and aquatic life more generally. So skip treating those swimsuits before your next beach trip.
How do I get permethrin-treated clothing?
There are three ways you can get permethrin-treated clothes for your summer adventures:
- Buy clothing already treated with permethrin. Look for items including the names Insect Shield, BugsAway, or Insect Blocker. Commercially-treated items will retain their repellency for 60-70 washings. (One Step Ahead makes Bug Smarties clothing, a line of commercially-treated clothes for kids up to size 8.)
- Send your favorite clothes away to Insect Shield to have them commercially treated for you. This costs $8-10 US per item for most types of clothing (the more pieces you send them, the lower the per-item cost), and the turnaround time is pretty fast. While this may seem pricey, you’ll end up with the same commercial-grade protection as if you’d bought new permethrin-infused clothes.
- Treat your clothes yourself at home. Several companies sell DIY permethrin-treatment spray, including Sawyer. DIY treatments will only last 6 weeks/6 washings, but you may find this more cost-effective for kids’ summer wear, especially if you tend to acquire your children’s attire “gently-used.”
Now that you know how to prevent tick bites with permethrin, see my next post for more on applying your own permethrin to clothing. I first did this for my kids in 2017, and we’ve done it every May and July since. It makes SUCH a huge difference in cutting down on mosquito bites, while preventing tick bites altogether!
Here’s to a summer with no tick bites! (Or mosquito bites, for that matter!)
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57 thoughts on “How to Protect Your Kids From Tick Bites: What Works Best?”
Just what I needed! My daughter is going on a field trip with school and I am a bit concerned about tick bites. Thanks for that useful advice!
You are so very welcome!!!
This is such a helpful post. LOVED IT!!
I am so glad to hear that! 🙂
thank you for this timely post, and glad to know that the repellent we are using is a good one to use…
This is a great resource. We have ticks in New England. We always make sure to look to them whenever we go outside with our little ones.
Gosh! I didn’t even realize ticks were such a big problem and I had no idea it has spread to Canada too!
This was such an eye opener. I’m with renee, i usually try to avoid DEET and look for other options. I loved all the do’s and don’ts, i have an idea now of what i should be doing and what to look for.
Ticks are the worst. I haven’t seen any in my yard yet. I know it’s just a matter of time. Great tips.
Thanks for the tips! I hate seeing my babies with bug bites!
Oh my gosh, ticks really freak me out! Thank you for this. I will be protecting the kids for sure!
Thanks for these helpful tips
These are some really great tips! We have to be careful when visiting our parents’ homes, so I’ll keep this in mind next time we go visit!
We experienced first-hand the dangers of ticks outdoors. One of our dogs came with us to visit a family friend up in Lehigh County. It was full of tall grass and such. Ticks were all over him when we got home. The car had it — everything! We left the heat on blast and washed everything. Good thinking to put light colors when you enter places like this.
This is a super informative post! I hate tick season, it’s always in the back of my mind as the kids go out and play. Thank for the great advice, I’ll be looking at your how to treat clothing post next 🙂
Tick bites are on the increase so this is such a useful post. I’m pinning for future reference.
Definitely becoming a bigger problem.
Isla got her first tick bite last week. Not a deer tick, but I’m still twitching and Googling. You can take the girl out of New York, but I’ll still grow up to think everything is Lyme. Thank you for this, I was honestly looking for this exact thing.
Oh, dear – so sorry you’ve now had that experience, too! (and having grown up an hour from Lyme, CT, I know exactly what you mean…) Glad this came at the right time for you!
Living in a woodsy part of Connecticut, we’re in tick country! Always looking for a natural, but effective solution. Thanks for these tips.
Wowwwwww. This is such great information, and so thorough! Thanks for sharing at #heartandsoullinkup
I have to send this to my friends in the US. I don’t think we have ticks here in Japan, it is uncommon to hear about tick bites.
Oooo great advice!!! Ticks scare me so much! We love being outside and rocks are always something on my mind
Oh wow such much information in one post about ticks. I am sure parents will love this and be pinning this article for sure xx
Very useful tips!
Such a timely post as we are approaching the summer. Speaking of which I need to buy some repellant and sunscreen…. already got my sunglasses. Thanks for the reminder.
Ticks can be a nightmare! This post is so informative and helpful to keep them at bay.
This is so good to know! We have a lot of wooded areas near our house and this worries me
It’s so good that we have a natural option! Especially for those of us who love camping in summer and we love being outdoors, it’s a huge issue!
Thanks for sharing this. My friend loves taking her kids for outdoor trips. I will have to share this with her.
We do a lot of camping over the summer so this will be so helpful. The last thing I need is for my kids to get tick bites!
I believe it that the DEET works. We went on a hike one time that didn’t have much of a trail. I sprayed bug spray on me, and was the only one that didn’t find a tick on my clothes (this was before we had kids). When we go out as a family, I have an essential oil blend that includes lemon eucalyptus and it seems to work really well. But we always tell the boys to make sure to check their body when they come in to take a shower.
Excellent tips. Though we live where ticks can be an issue, we have been lucky so far to not have to deal with any yet. Though we do take preventative measures whenever we go out into the woods.
Wow! This is so interesting! We live in an area not known for ticks, but plan to travel this month and now that I’ve read this, I’m defintely going to be considering all of the options. I guess, like sunscreen, I assumed that insect repellant would need to be reapplied every couple of hours, so it’s nice to know that for sure!
Thank you for the great tips. My daughter got Lyme last summer unfortunately. This summer we are taking extra precautions for all the kids.
Such great advice, I love the summer months but hate the bugs that come with it. I will for sure need to try some of these tricks for the kiddos this year!
Well summer is already here in mumbai and definitely will be following all the tips shared here by you. 🙂
You really did a lot of research for this post. Thanks for all of the time you spent gathering this useful information!
Very informative post! I’ve just learned about Permethrin-treated clothing – sounds like it is indeed the best option. Thank you for sharing these tips with us.
This is a great post! The advice is needed by so many! Lyme disease is a horrible chronic illness. This is a great way to help prevent it!
This is a very informative post and will be helpful. Ticks are so annoying.
That’s an understatement! Glad you found it useful! 🙂
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This here is a really great post. Very informative for keeping families safe against ticks! Thank you for helping us all keep our kids and families safe! #WanderingWednesday
*Thanks* Michele – so glad you found it useful! 🙂
This is very helpful and most of it is new to me. My family loves the outdoors so I appreciate the information.
So glad you found it helpful, Elizabeth! 🙂
This info is wortһ everyone’s attention. When can I find out moгe?
Well, besides the links throughout the post, you could also read the follow-up post 🙂 …
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Hi Flossie – really useful post! I have shared your link on PainPalsBlog regular feature Monday Magic Inspiring Blogs for You, Claire x
Aww, THANK YOU Claire! (and I can’t believe I’m only seeing this comment now?!? – not sure why?!?) – That is so sweet of you, and I’m so glad you found it inspiring and useful! Hope your readers did, too! 🙂
It’s a shame the Lyme vaccine fell out of favor for human use—thankfully I can still get it for my dogs, but Lyme is nothing to play around with! Good information here, lots of options.
I know – having grown up near Lyme CT, I got the vaccine faithfully when it was available, and was really bummed when suddenly it wasn’t anymore! :(…
Super useful! I have heard this will be a significant issue this year. I love that there is a natural option. I’ll have to use the DEET for the big things–like the long camping trips or the ones under a lot of tree cover or fields of long grasses. But for the day to day I think a Lemon Eucalyptus option is a great one. Thank you!
So glad you found it useful, Angela! Do consider the permethrin treatment as well, at least for socks and shoes – some experts say to treat these 2 items if nothing else, since ticks generally start at the ground and work their way up…
Really useful post.
*Thanks* Rachael! 🙂