We love pretty much everything about summer, with one exception: bugs. But not for the reasons you might think. Bugs are also associated with some very serious health risks, especially ticks. Read on to learn about the health risks of bug bites, how to prevent tick bites and other insect bites, the best non-toxic bug spray options, and what to do if a tick bites you.
The Health Risks of Bug Bites
Ticks are most notorious for spreading Lyme disease, which we know from our interviews (and personal experience) is no joke. Left untreated it can lead to chronic Lyme, which is associated with various complications and can even lead to death.
Ticks also carry other diseases, including Babesiosis and the recently discovered Heartland virus. Babesiosis is a life-threatening infection of red blood cells, which is most common in the Midwest and Northeast portions of the United States. Heartland virus can cause head and muscle aches, fatigue, fever, and diarrhea, and there’s currently no vaccine or medication. Yikes. Meanwhile, mosquitoes can carry the threat of Zika, West Nile, chikungunya virus, dengue fever, and malaria.
What’s more, instances of these bug-borne illnesses are increasing. According to the CDC, diseases, and infections from ticks, mosquitoes, and fleas have tripled in the past 13 years! In that time, nine new germs spread by mosquitoes and ticks were either discovered or introduced into the U.S., seven of them from ticks. Ticks seem to be the fastest-growing threat, accounting for over 60% of the reported 642,602 cases of insect-borne illnesses during those 13 years. The most recent estimate puts the number of Americans who contract Lyme disease each year at around 300,000 — scarier still, only 30,000 of those are reported.
How to Prevent Tick Bites
So given all the health risks of bites from ticks and other bugs (not to mention their general unpleasantness), it’s important to know how to prevent tick bites. What’s more, it’s essential to know how to prevent tick bites in a way that doesn’t compromise your health in other ways (ie, by spraying harmful chemicals onto your skin and therefore into your bloodstream).
We’ll get into non-toxic bug spray options below, but first, let’s look at even safer alternatives for protecting yourself from bug bites. Here are our top tips on how to prevent tick bites without using insect repellent:
- Treat your clothes and shoes with permethrin, or buy permethrin-treated clothing. Permethrin is the only pesticide approved by the EPA for the purposes of treating such items, and because it binds tightly to fabrics, very little of the chemical transfers to the skin. Still, permethrin is a toxic pesticide, so the long-term effects of wearing clothing treated with it are still largely unknown and could be dangerous.
- Wear long sleeves and long pants (and high socks!) to provide a physical barrier between your skin and insects.
- Avoid walking in tall grass or even regular grass often.
- Burn citronella candles, which put off an aroma that repels mosquitoes and other insects.
- Control ticks and fleas on your pets, which reduces the chances that harmful insects will hitchhike into your home via dogs and cats.
- Immediately following any sort of hike or walk where you may have been exposed to ticks, change your clothes and throw the clothes you wore outdoors into the laundry.
- Shower immediately afterward (or at least at the end of the day) following any sort of hike or walk where you may have been exposed to ticks.
- Do regular tick checks. Spoiler alert: ticks love to nestle into warm, tough-to-spot places like in your groin, in your armpits, in your scalp, between your toes, in your ears. So check those areas thoroughly with your fingers. If you feel any bumps, investigate further.
What About Non-Toxic Bug Spray?
Of course, perhaps the most common way to prevent bites from ticks and other bugs is with insect repellent. But as you can probably tell from the harsh, chemical smell of most bug sprays, most of these products aren’t exactly good for you. And when you consider the fact that your skin is your largest organ and whatever it absorbs passes into your bloodstream, this is pretty concerning. So are there non-toxic bug spray options that actually work?
The answer to that, unfortunately, isn’t completely uncomplicated. Bug repellents are full of strong chemicals, and according to the Environmental Working Group, there is “no sure, completely safe way to prevent bug bites. All bug repellents have pros and cons.” Keep in mind that using a chemical bug repellent adds to your toxic load.
DEET, which gets a bad rap, is actually one of the EWG’s top ingredients for effective protection against Zika- and West Nile-carrying mosquitoes. The three ingredients they recommend looking for in bug repellents, which are effective against both mosquitoes and ticks, are:
- DEET (20-30% concentration)
- Picaridin (20% concentration)
- IR 3535 (20% concentration)
But remember, these are still strong chemicals, so use some precaution. Avoid spraying any of them close to your face or directly on your skin; spray your clothing and avoid putting on your skin at all. By preventing them from entering your skin and bloodstream, you can reduce your toxic load and possible harm to your body.
If you want a botanically-based repellent, look for one made with oil of lemon eucalyptus, which is the most effective non-toxic bug spray on the market and the only one on the CDC’s list of recommended insect repellents (just remember that oil of lemon eucalyptus doesn’t last as long as DEET or Picaridin, so you’ll need to reapply every few hours).
For WellBe-approved insect repellent brands, as well as 1,200+ other researched and vetted clean products, check out the WellBe Non-Toxic Product Lists database.
What to Do If a Tick Bites You
No matter how many precautions you take, there’s always a chance that you’ll still get bitten by a tick. If that happens, don’t panic! There are safe and effective ways to deal with tick bites that reduce your chances of contracting any tick-borne illnesses. Here’s what to do if a tick bites you:
First, remove the tick. The CDC has pretty thorough step-by-step instructions for tick removal, which we’ll summarize here:
- Grasp the tick with fine-tipped tweezers, as close to the skin as possible
- Pull upward with steady, constant pressure — don’t twist or wrench — until the tick comes off.
- Thoroughly clean the site of the tick bite with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.
- Put the tick in a sealed plastic bag. Don’t crush it! That way you can send the tick to a lab that can test it to see if it carried Lyme disease. The Global Lyme Alliance has a list of tick testing labs here. The University of Rhode Island also has a service called Tick Encounter where you can upload a photo of the tick and get information about it and next steps within 1-3 days. Other options include Tick Report and IGeneX.
- If the tick ends up on your finger, do not try to squeeze it to kill it! If you cannot get something to put it in like a plastic bag, flush it down the toilet.
After you’ve removed the tick and sent it to a lab, you can take a few more precautions. First, be sure to tell your doctor about your tick bite, including when it occurred and where you were. Also, pay close attention to how you feel in the days and weeks afterward, and report any rashes or fever to your doctor.
When the disease is caught early, antibiotics are generally effective in treating Lyme disease. About 20% of Lyme cases, however, will not be treated completely by antibiotics and symptoms will persist for years afterward. Also, taking antibiotics is damaging to gut health and the immune system in the long run, so if you have no symptoms and the tested tick is not positive for microbes that carry Lyme disease, you may want to hold off on taking antibiotics. If you do end up taking antibiotics, make sure you have a plan to restore your good gut bacteria.
The WellBe Takeaway: What to Remember About Protecting Yourself From Ticks and Other Insects
Being outside during spring and summer is the best, and nobody should hole up inside out of fear of tick bites or tick-borne illnesses. But the growing threat of Lyme Disease and its tick-borne co-infections is real and makes completely carefree summer fun outdoors a thing of the past. Here’s what to remember about the health risks of bugs, how to prevent tick bites, and what to do if you get a tick bite:
- Insects, especially ticks, can carry some extremely harmful diseases. Ticks can carry Lyme disease, as well as the blood infection Babesiosis and the recently discovered Heartland virus. Mosquitoes can carry Zika, West Nile, and dengue fever, among other diseases.
- Diseases from ticks, mosquitoes, and fleas are on the rise. In the United States, cases have tripled in the past 13 years.
- To protect yourself from ticks and other insects, you can take precautions like treating your clothes with permethrin, burning citronella candles, wearing long sleeves and pants, avoiding walking often in tall grass or even regular grass, doing regular tick checks, changing clothes and showering after possible exposure, and controlling fleas on pets.
- Most insect repellents contain strong, harmful chemicals. The EWG says that the safest ingredients are DEET, Picaridin, and IR 3535. However, these chemicals still have risks and should be used carefully (ideally only on clothes, not skin).
- Non-toxic bug spray options include insect repellents made with oil of lemon eucalyptus, and you can find all the WellBe-approved non-toxic insect repellent brands, as well as 1,200+ other researched and vetted clean products in the WellBe Non-Toxic Product Lists database.
- If you do get bitten by a tick, you should safely remove it and send it off to be tested. The Global Lyme Alliance has a list of tick testing labs here. If the test comes back positive, it may be wise to be treated with a course of antibiotics. Just remember that a gut healing protocol is critical to do if you choose to take antibiotics.
With the information above, you’re armed with the knowledge and tactics you need to keep you and your loved ones safe from ticks, without missing out on the fun of the season and the many health benefits of spending time in nature.
Did we miss a tip on how to prevent tick bites and other insect bites? Tell us in the comments below!
- Marques, A. Chronic Lyme Disease: An appraisal.Infect Dis Clin North Am. 2008 Jun; 22(2): 341–360.
- Kuehn, B.J. CDC Estimates 300 000 US Cases of Lyme Disease Annually. JAMA. 2013;310(11):1110.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases. December 21, 2018.