How to Protect Your Family from Ticks in the Backyard

With the right management strategies, parents can keep pets, kids, and yards free from tick bites and tick borne illnesses. Here's what the experts recommend.

tick on finger
ArtBoyMB—Getty Images.

On an unusually warm morning this past spring in Maine, my husband and I stood over a bench in the garage wearing face masks and rubber gloves making "tick tube bombs." We had tried everything to protect our kids from ticks: spraying with garlic oil, keeping our grass cut short, and of course, the constant vigilance of daily tick checks but every year, it seems that there are more ticks than the year before.

It was time to dig in and get DIY about the tick problem in our yard. I asked my mom friends how they control ticks and they all agreed that making my own DIY tick tube bombs would be the most effective way to go. Apparently, after tossing chemically-treated cotton around my yard, mice—the biggest spreader of ticks and thus Lyme disease—would take the cotton back to their nests and kill off all the ticks and eggs. This sounded brilliant to me, so my husband and I got to work.

Once the tick tube bombs were stuffed with the deadly chemical, my husband and I tromped off into the woods that create a perimeter around our four-acre yard and began to toss the bombs around, creating an imaginary dotted line of protection. We weren't going to let ticks bite and potentially infect our family with Lyme.

Turns out, though, we were doing this all wrong.

Tick Borne Illnesses Are on the Rise

"Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne disease in the United States. The disease is most commonly transmitted in late spring and early summer, and are most commonly spread by younger, smaller ticks," says Clare Kranz, who is an Acute Care Pediatric Nurse Practitioner DNP, MSN, RN, CPNP-AC and Assistant Professor at the University of Utah. She explains that tick bites should taken seriously by parents.

According to the EPA, the incidence of Lyme has dramatically increased from 3.74 reported cases per 100,000 people to 7.95 and rising since 1991 in the US, most notably place like New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and Delaware where the effects of climate change are increasing temperatures and giving ticks an opportunity to thrives in places where they once couldn't survive, including as far north as parts of Canada. What's more, the CDC reports that approximately 30,000 cases (a conservative estimate, as not all cases are formally reported) are reported each year.

With no real luck with my tick bombing project, I reached out to Griffin Dill, Tick Lab Coordinator, University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Through his lab, researchers study where ticks are in Maine and the infection rates of Lyme disease. Mainers can submit a tick to determine what kind of tick it is and whether or not Lyme is present. Not only does the Tick Lab identify ticks but they also provide educational outreach to teach personal protection strategies. Here's what he taught me.

  • RELATED: Lyme Disease: Separating Fact From Myth

Tick Repellents and Strategies for Your Yard

Dill explains that when it comes to tick prevention there is no single silver-bullet management strategy and that includes my experiment with tick tube bombs. That said, combining a few different strategies can help reduce exposure to ticks and help keep families safe.

Mr. Dill's first piece of advice to me on the prevention of ticks was to start thinking about effective barriers.

"This can either be a physical barrier using clothing or a chemical barrier using topical repellents such as DEET, picaridin, or oil of lemon eucalyptus," Mr. Dill says. "The two barriers can be combined by treating clothing with permethrin."

Permethrin, that same chemical I used to create tick tube bombs, is a highly effective tick repellent and killer. Not only does kill ticks on contact but it lasts on clothing through multiple washes, making it a fantastic option for protecting kids and adults and can be purchased at most big clothing retailers.

I shared my tick tube bomb strategy with Dill to see if he thought this common DIY trick many families use is a good idea and surprisingly, Dill pointed out the logic behind is actually flawed.

"Tick tubes can help minimize encounters with ticks, particularly when used in combination with other tick management strategies," Dill shares. "Since they rely on rodents using the treated cotton as nesting material, the types of small animals that are present is important. Mice are important hosts for immature ticks and will take advantage of the tick tubes, however, chipmunks and many other small animals that are also important tick hosts do not seem to utilize the tick tubes."

He went on to explain that families like mine who want to use tick tube bombs should seriously consider purchasing commercially available tubes—and for a good reason.

"The permethrin that is used in these products is a low-risk product and is uniformly applied at specific rates," Dill points out. "When people attempt to make their own tick tubes, they risk applying too little permethrin which can help ticks develop pesticide resistance or they could apply too much and risk harming non-target organisms."

Personal Tick Bite Prevention

Ticks and tick-borne illnesses are definitely scary and can give any parent pause about sending their kids outside to play, especially in the woods or grassy fiends where they are likely to find ticks. But with these tweaks to the way you're protecting your family members, you can help keep your kids safe:

  • Dress kids in light colored clothing to see the ticks better
  • Tuck pant legs into socks or permethrin treated clothing
  • Consider tick repellent treatments for pets that come in either pill or a once a month topical treatment form
  • Always do regular tick checks at bath and bedtime
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