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Green and Growing: A line of defense against ticks in winter woodlands

It’s a sunny 40 degrees outdoors. You decide to take a walk in the woods. Does the winter season guarantee a tick-free walk? Not quite.

Some types of ticks remain active from fall to spring when temperatures are above freezing, according to tick expert Dr. Goudarz Molaei, a medical entomologist and director of the Passive Tick Surveillance and Testing Program at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

“For instance, adult black-legged ticks remain active from fall to spring as long as the temperature is above freezing,” said Molaei about the species that carries Lyme pathogens and several other tick-borne diseases. “Extremely cold temperatures can slow tick activity and reduce their survival rate.”

Most woodland walkers know the protective effects of tucking pants hems into their socks, which blocks easy access to legs and keeps ticks visible on clothing, especially if it is light-colored. It’s a great wintertime strategy, though uncomfortable in warmer times.

Perhaps now is the time to discover another option: insect-repellent clothing for yourself and your family.

Permethrin-treated clothing uses little of the chemical: only one-half of one percent concentration. It isn’t sprayed directly on the skin. With the exception of cats, mammals don’t absorb permethrin from fabric. The permethrin-treated clothing and gear are even EPA-approved for nursing mothers and children.

Permethrin, like other repellents, is effective at lower temperatures, Molaei said.

What are the alternatives? DEET is recognized by various testing sources, from Consumer Reports to the Environmental Protection Agency, as the gold standard for repelling ticks and mosquitoes.

Some people object to DEET, however. It has an unpleasant scent, can cause skin rashes in rare cases, and can damage plastic watch crystals, eyeglass frames, rayon, spandex, other synthetic fabrics, leather, and painted or varnished surfaces. It should be used sparingly on children over the age of 2, and, according to some guidelines, not on children under 2.

Also, according to the EPA, we shouldn’t spray DEET on the skin covered by clothing.

Other solutions are also effective.

Picaridin, for instance, has a better scent. It poses no threat to objects such as clothing or eyeglass frames. It holds its own in mosquito-repellent trials, but in some research fails to match DEET’s tick-repelling power.

Some products in the “natural” category also merit attention.

A few years ago, Consumer Reports rated Repel, a 30% lemon-eucalyptus pump spray, in third place behind two 30 percent DEET products. Testers found that this product tends not to damage fabrics or other materials. (Note: We have to reapply natural products more frequently.)

Alexis Chesney, a naturopathic physician who devotes much of her Vermont practice to tick-borne diseases, writes that she opts for an oil-based product called Cedarcide Tickshield. Her recent book, “Preventing Lyme and Other Tick-Borne Diseases,” offers a thorough overview of ticks and tick-borne diseases nationwide, as well as herbal and homeopathic approaches to prevention and treatment.

Chesney endorses repellent clothing. “Permethrin-treated clothing and gear is highly effective against tick bites and safe for use,” she wrote.

If repellent clothing sounds like a winner, here are three ways to add some to your wardrobe:

Do-it-yourself: Buy permethrin sprays and treat your boots, clothing, and gear at home. If applied, dried, and washed according to instructions, DIY treatment protects for about six washings or 45 days.

Pre-treated new clothing: Perhaps you’ve seen repellent clothing in outdoor catalogs. An original manufacturer, Insect Shield, LLC, is behind almost all the brands. The North Carolina company developed the process of bonding proprietary repellent to consumer apparel in the late ‘90s.

Their products achieved EPA registration in 2003, and they added dogs and horses in 2005. In 2006, the EPA granted the apparel registration as “effective through 70 washings.”

Professional treatment for your clothing: Send your outdoor clothing and gear to Insect Shield and have it treated. For a fee, they provide the same treatment that offers 70 washings.

What about those 70 washings?

“We recommend washing the clothing separately and line-drying to maximize its life and effectiveness,” said No-Fly Zone manufacturer Julie Swain in Skowhegan, Maine,

The EPA website says that small amounts of permethrin can come off in the wash. It also states that you should not apply permethrin to some clothing, such as underwear. For more information, visit epa.gov/insect-repellents/repellent-treated-clothing.

How many walkers, hunters, gardeners, and others use or even know about permethrin-treated clothing? No one seems to track its popularity. For my part, I plan to take a walk, give the ticks a bad taste, and leave them in the woods.

Kathy Connolly writes and speaks about horticulture and landscape ecology. She can be reached at speakingoflandscapes.com

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