5 proven ways to prevent tick bites

Tick-borne illnesses are on the rise. Here’s how to defend yourself, your family—and your pets.

woman spraying tick repellant on her son

Ticks may be tiny, but the diseases they carry are on the rise.

Tick-borne illnesses, especially Lyme disease, more than doubled between 2004 and 2016, according to research released in May 2018 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While Lyme disease accounts for more than eighty percent of all cases, other types of disease—including spotted fever rickettsiosis, babesiosis, and anaplasmosis/ehrlichiosis—are also increasing.

Here’s what you need to know to protect yourself during the height of tick season—which, depending on where you live, can last all the way from March to mid-November.

Dress to protect

If you’re going to be hiking or spending time in potentially tick-infested areas like woods, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants tucked into socks. Lighter colors won’t just keep you cooler but will make it easier to spot ticks, too. You can also buy clothing that’s been pre-treated with permethrin, a chemical that kills ticks, or treat clothing yourself with a product that contains 0.5 percent permethrin.

The protection provided by pre-treated clothing should last for up to sixty washings, whereas treating clothes yourself should last several washings.

Wear repellent

Look for a product that contains between 10 and 35 percent DEET, 7 or 15 percent picaridin or IR3535. For children over 2 months of age, the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend using 10 to 30 percent DEET. Children under 2 months should not use DEET.

Follow the instructions on the label for reapplication: most products containing picaridin or IR3535 need to be reapplied every two hours. With DEET products, it depends on the concentration. If you or your child have sensitive skin, you may be better off with picaridin. According to the Environmental Working Group, picaridin may be less likely than the others to trigger skin and eye irritation.

Rinse off after you’ve been outdoors

While it’s probably unrealistic to hop into the shower every time you come in from the yard, if you’ve been out for a while, or been out in heavily wooded areas, it’s a good idea to take a quick bath or shower. Research has shown that bathing within two hours of yard time reduced risk of developing Lyme disease by almost sixty percent. Since ticks can also land on your clothes, throw your outfit in a hot dryer for ten minutes to kill any bugs that may have sneakily attached themselves.

Do a tick check

Ticks need to be attached to your skin for at least 36 hours before they can start transmitting Lyme disease. But that timeframe is shorter for other diseases such as spotted fever and anaplasmosis, so make sure you examine yourself and other loved ones at the end of any day spent outdoors in an area where you can pick up ticks.

Living in or around a city doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have to worry about tick-borne illnesses. Ticks that can spread Lyme disease may be found in some city parks in endemic areas, particularly the Northeast, that are accessible to deer, according to a May 2019 Columbia University study.

Checking for ticks involves a full-body exam, including looking under the arms, under the arms, in and around ears, inside the belly button, behind knees, between legs and in hair. If you don’t have a partner to help you, use a hand-held or full-length mirror to check yourself.

Create a tick-free home zone

There are also a few things you can do to help keep ticks off of your property:

  • Invest in a fence. It won’t just keep pets and small children in the yard, but will keep animals that transmit ticks (like deer, racoons and rodents) out.
  • Do some landscaping. Since ticks—and the mice that often host them—tend to live in wooded areas, create a 3-foot wide barrier of wood chips to discourage either type of critter from crossing over into your lawn.
  • Mow your lawn regularly. This improves sun exposure to grass which in turn makes it less hospitable for ticks.
  • Treat your lawn. Applying an insecticide that contains bifenthrin or cyfluthrin may help kill ticks. Just keep in mind that this method isn’t foolproof—research hasn’t proven that it reduces rates of tick-related disease.
  • Set pesticide-containing bait boxes. These can trap mice that may carry ticks. Using this method reduced the prevalence of blacklegged ticks by more than 97 percent over two years, according to a study published in 2017 in the Journal of Medical Entomology.

Protect your pooch, too

All that romping outside leaves your canine very susceptible to tick bites. Nearly six percent of dogs test positive for Lyme disease, just over three percent for anaplasmosis and nearly three percent for ehrlichiosis, according to data from the Companion Animal Parasite Council.

While it makes sense to ask your veterinarian about vaccinating your dog against Lyme disease—especially if you live in an area with high rates like the Northeast, mid-Atlantic or upper Midwest—dogs are still at risk for other tick-borne diseases and can also bring ticks into the house and cause you to get infected. You should also talk to your vet about using a preventive product that can kill or repel ticks, such as one made with pyrethroids.

A solid fence will keep animals that transmit ticks (like deer) out, while an electric fence can keep Rover from wandering into potentially tick-infested areas like that patch of woods at the edge of your lawn.

And just as it’s important to check yourself and family members for ticks, remember to check your dog for ticks daily (and your cat too, if he or she ever ventures outside). If you spot a tick, remove it promptly.

Remove ticks immediately

If you do see a tick, there’s no need to panic, but you do need to act quickly, since infection can occur within 36-48 hours.

The best way to remove a tick is to use a set of fine-tipped tweezers to grasp it close to the skin, then pull upwards with steady, even pressure. Don’t jerk or twist the tick, which can cause mouth parts to remain lodged in the skin. And try to avoid crushing it—doing so can cause potentially infected body fluids to leak out.

After you pull the tick off, clean the bite area and your hands with either soap and water or rubbing alcohol. You can get rid of the tick by placing it in a sealed plastic baggie or giving it a naval burial by flushing it down the toilet. Don’t try to suffocate the tick with nail polish or petroleum jelly, since the goal is to remove the tick as soon as possible.

The CDC doesn’t recommend sending the tick off for testing, since a positive result doesn’t necessarily mean you’re infected, and a negative result can lead to false assurance. In other words, you could have also unknowingly been bitten by a different tick that was infected.

In the meantime, keep an eye out for symptoms of tick disease such as a rash at the site of the bite, fever and unexplained aches and pains like a headache or muscle aches. If you have any of these symptoms—or just want to make sure you’re doing the right thing after a tick bite—check with your doctor.

Medically reviewed in May 2019.

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