As someone with Chronic Lyme Disease, I’ve become a bit of an expert about how to keep ticks from sinking their teeth into my family. I don’t want anyone I love coming down with this life-altering illness!
It might be easy to assume that I’m hyper-vigilant and a wee-bit-freaked out by the whole tick thing after contracting Lyme. But the truth is, I feel more knowledgeable and empowered now than I ever was before. I refuse to let ticks take another second of joy away from my life, so you’ll happily find me going on hikes in the deep woods and letting my kid roll around in the tall grass. I believe life is too short to live in fear of those tiny bugs.
That being said, we do take precautions. We do prepare. And we do have a plan of action for what to do if we find a tick bite. We’re going to cover prevention here, but check out this post for what we do when we do find a tick bite (it still happens to us, although a lot less frequently now).
I’m going to get this out of the way from the get-go: we’ve found the most effective method for repelling ticks are products that contain DEET and other synthetic insect repellent chemicals—bug sprays, yard sprays, bug bombs, treated clothing, etc. They just flat-out work.
However, as someone who has natural leanings, I’m always looking for more “Mother Earth-friendly” ways to accomplish the same tasks, so our barrier methods rarely include the standard synthetic bug-repellent chemicals. There are a few exceptions (see more below), but in general, we stick to natural methods for keeping ticks away. Are they as effective? No. Do we have to do more work to get the same result? Yes. Do I sleep better at night knowing I’m not dousing myself and my family daily in a substance that may or may not cause neurological damage? You bet your bonnet I do. Alright, let’s dig into what we have been doing:
Removing the Environments that Ticks Love
This is maybe the most important part of any good tick-repelling strategy, and what I recommend folks do first—remove the places that ticks like to hang out. Ticks don’t jump, run, or fly, but they do have a boatload of patience. They sit around (or crawl around) waiting for a host to brush by. So you want to remove all the places where they happily sit and wait. This includes:
- Getting rid of leaf litter each fall (ticks love a good leaf pile).
- Keeping any wood piles away from your house.
- Keep grass regularly mowed.
- Trim any tree limbs that hang down and can be easily touched. This includes limbs that touch the roof of your house.
- Move swing sets, sandboxes, picnic areas, etc. away from wooded areas.
In general, ticks don’t like sunny spots, so if you have a sunny yard, you’ll have a much smaller tick population than those of us with wooded lots. If you have a lot of land like we do, it’s just impossible to do this much clean up. If I had to remove all the leaf litter from my entire property, I’d never get to do anything else! So we primarily focus on the areas around the house.
Daily Tick Checks
I check my daughter for ticks every single day from about March through November. I go over her head-to-toe with a headlamp on (it’s the best way to see!). It sounds annoying and time intensive, but we literally timed it and it took 61 seconds to do the entire tick check before bath time the other night. And we’ve been doing it since she was a wee one, so she’s used to it. In fact, she’s so used to it being the first step in her bedtime routine, that the second I put my fingers in her hair to start checking her scalp, she almost always yawns!
We make it a fun experience for her. I do “this little piggy” while I check between her toes. I put her on my lap and dip her back like she’s going to fall while I check the back of her legs. We have found dozens of tick bites this way, and maybe more importantly, I’ve found dozens of ticks that were crawling on her but not yet latched on. Prevention is the best medicine.
Tick checks are so important, especially on kids, because us adults tend to be more aware of our skin and feel when some ticks are crawling on us (I’ve noticed this is more true in people who do not shave—the ticks disturb the body hair and it’s easier to feel). Many busy kids have a hard time feeling a tick crawling on their skin. A daily tick check is our number one line of defense with my daughter.
Natural Insect Repellent with Rose Geranium
I make my own bug and tick spray for daily use. Since this bug spray is completely natural, I feel comfortable dowsing my family in it regularly and liberally. We have bottles of this all over the house, on the porch, and in our garden basket. And it smells wonderful! The key to this and any natural insect repellents is frequent reapplication. I’m talking at least every hour. These act as true scent-based repellents, so the moment the scent dissipates, the effectiveness is gone.
There are a lot of different essential oils in that bug spray recipe that accomplish various things, but maybe the most important ingredient from a tick-repellent perspective is rose geranium oil. In particular, the pelargonium capitatum x radens variety of rose geranium is the most effective against ticks. It is expensive, unfortunately, but it WORKS. I even sometimes just use the oil “neat” on my wrists and ankles when I’m going into a tick-infested area.
I’ve heard of people also using rose geranium oil on their pets as a natural flea and tick barrier. However, I’ve never tried it, and I highly recommend checking with your vet (even better if you can find a holistic vet) before trying any essential oils on your pets. Pets metabolize essential oils differently than humans, and some oils can be deadly toxic. More on tick prevention in pets below!
Having a Natural Barrier Spray Applied in the Summer
Last year, we were doing all of the stuff to treat ourselves, but were still finding dozens of ticks on us a week, and we decided it was time to bring in the big guns. We hired a local company, Mosquito Joe, to come in and spray the wooded areas around our house every two weeks with a natural barrier spray. It doesn’t kill ticks and mosquitoes like a synthetic spray would, and it has to be reapplied more frequently (read: it’s more expensive than a synthetic spray), but it does repel the bugs—basically putting up a big ole “you’re not welcome here” sign in our yard. The spray we have done is made up of garlic, rosemary, and cedarwood oils, and our property smells amazing after it’s done!
We’ve had absolutely incredible success with this service. The photo below is from last summer. The post-it notes on the left are the tick bites we had as a family (bites, not just crawling on us) from the six weeks prior to getting our yard sprayed. The ones on the right are for the six weeks after. Quite a difference, huh?
(If you’re curious why we keep ticks on post-it notes, make sure to check out our What to Do If You Get a Tick Bite post!)
And I can tell you that the difference has continued right on into the next year. By this time last year, as a family, we’d already had dozens of tick bites between the three of us. This year? We’ve had two tick bites, and both of them were on my daughter—she spends a lot of time in the woods at her school, too, so it’s entirely possible they came from there. We also have barely seen a single mosquito this year, and in years past, we’ve been forced to take refuge inside because of the mosquito deluge!
This spray has been particularly important when it comes to our dogs, because as you’ll see in the next section, animals are the primary way ticks enter the house for most households. Our dogs have a fenced in wooded yard that was literally crawling with ticks. We have Mosquito Joe spray the area and the tick population has plummeted there. This post isn’t sponsored by them, by the way, I just really like how they’ve given us our yard back!
Treating Our Pets
Treating your pets for ticks is just as important as treating yourself, not just for their own health, but also to prevent them from transporting ticks to you! Dogs and cats tend to explore outdoor places that humans don’t often frequent—including those leaf piles you didn’t get around to last fall or the wooded area in the back of your yard. They go there, they brush up against a tick, then they trot on into your house, and voila, a tick has now infiltrated your home.
We personally use pharmaceutical tick medication on our dogs. Hopefully, when our tick population is under control, we will be able to move to more natural options for our puppers, but right now, we feel most comfortable using the stronger stuff. We personally use NexGard chewables for our dogs. I like that the medication is taken internally and not sitting on the skin or in a collar where it could easily transfer to my daughter when she hugs our dogs (which happens frequently—she’s a lover when she wants to be). It also just seems to work the best for us out of all the tick meditations on the market right now.
If you are interested in more natural options for tick treatment in your animals, a holistic veterinarian can steer you in the right direction. It’s worth noting that it’s also important to have your pets regularly tested for tickborne illnesses if you find them with bites. Not only does it help you get them the treatment they need, but it also can work well as a canary-in-the-coal-mine to know what diseases the ticks in your area are carrying.
You might think it’s weird to see chickens listed here, but chickens are excellent tick-control! They love eating all kinds of bugs, including ticks. When our chickens free-ranged, we saw a dramatic drop in the tick population. Unfortunately, because of predator issues, we had to pen them up. But even with them only covering a 1/2 acre of wooded space, we definitely see a lot fewer ticks in the area of our property where they live.
Guinea fowl are also extremely good tick eaters, and a lot of people own them almost exclusively for tick control. They have their issues (flighty, loud, dumb as rocks, etc.) so guineas aren’t the right decision for everyone, but they can be a really good addition to a homestead if you have the space and need some tick control animals.
Special Deep Woods “Uniform”
Part of a good tick control strategy is understanding that different environments require different techniques. For our day-to-day lives, we stick with natural treatments, but we ramp it up a bit when we go into the belly of the beast—the deep woods. When we go off-trail hiking or go pick wild black raspberries or go mushroom hunting, the entire family has a special “uniform” we wear for tick prevention. This is:
- Light-colored Permethrin-treated long pants, socks, and long-sleeve shirt: Permethrin is a synthetic insect repellent that can be sprayed onto clothing and will last for 50-60 washes. You can purchase pre-treated clothes like we do (I like Bug Smarties brand for kids and ExOfficio BugsAway for grown-ups) or buy the spray and treat clothes yourself. I highly recommend not wearing those clothes for “regular” use—they are literally doused with chemicals designed to kill creatures. I recommend washing them separately and storing them separately to keep them from releasing the chemicals onto your other clothing. Light colored clothing is so you can see ticks (and so you’re cooler).
- Hair up and with a hat or bandana: The scalp is a tick’s favorite spot. It’s dark, it’s cool, it’s easy to hide in. It’s basically the leaf pile of the human body. It also happens to be the spot that tends to brush up against branches and leaves the most when in the woods. Long hair goes up and everyone wears either a hat (preferably one treated with Permethrin) or a bandana.
- Tall boots: I like to put my socks over the bottom of my pants and then tuck the whole thing into tall boots. Not only does this keep ticks away, but it also prevents my foot from getting bitten if I accidentally step on a snake! #countrylife
I prefer to use clothing treated with permethrin because the chemical barrier is hovering just outside my body on my clothing, not on my skin or in my body. I know that some of the chemical transfers into my skin, but it’s not nearly the same amount that would happen if I sprayed directly onto the skin.
Occasional DEET Use
However, there are times when the permethrin uniform just won’t do. For example, when it’s 90°F outside and I’m on the fourth mile of an uphill hike—I don’t want anything to do with long pants! So, very occasionally, I do use DEET spray. And when I do, I use 100% DEET and apply it sparingly to exposed skin. I am more likely to use DEET in an area where I’m not familiar with the tick population, say, when I’m hiking in a state park, instead of in my own backyard where I can pretty much map out all the tick neighborhoods.
I do always start with my natural tick spray and/or rose geranium essential oil “neat”, and if it seems like it’s not working (or I have to stop every 10 minutes to reapply), I then move to DEET. It’s definitely not my first line of defense—more like my 10th—but I use it if I need to. I’d say I probably use DEET once or twice each summer.
I do not use DEET sprays in conjunction with the permethrin clothing. I’m a less-is-more kinda gal, and I’ve always felt like one or the other accomplishes my goals just fine. And the fewer synthetic chemicals I put on my body is a good thing.
And that covers everything we’ve been doing. There are tons of other ways (both natural and not-so-natural) to keep ticks away, but this strategy above seems to be working well for us.
You might be asking, if you do all of this stuff, how did you get Lyme in the first place? Well, I wasn’t always so vigilant. Growing up in the country, ticks were just part of life. We played in the woods in the summer, got tick bites, my Mama went after them with a pair of tweezers, and then we went back to playing. No one was afraid of them because “Lyme didn’t exist here.” The worst thing we thought could happen from a tick bite was to get an itchy welt (and lordy, do tick bties itch).
I carried this belief all the way until the very first doctor that mentioned Lyme disease to me when I first got sick. We don’t have that here! It can’t be! But it turns out, while I was busy growing up, cases of tickborne illnesses were steadily on the rise. Ticks that carry the Lyme bacteria have been found in every state in the US and in more than 80 countries worldwide. Yes, Lyme is much more prevalent in certain areas of the country, but it does exist everywhere. And I wish I knew this before I was infected. Maybe a little bit of prevention would have saved me from getting sick. So, it goes without saying, I’m much more vigilant now than I was before I got Lyme.