Ticks are gross. Anyone who's ever had to peel one off themself, a loved one, or, say, frantically try to extract one from a dog while watching a YouTube video about how to extract a tick from a dog will know just how much of a pain they can be. But I have some good news for you if you're planning to get outside this Memorial Day weekend — a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-led study shows that clothing treated with insecticide can help prevent tick bites, keeping you protected from the bane of outdoorsfolks everywhere.
The study, published May 24 in the Journal of Medical Entomology, examined the response of three types of ticks to clothing treated with permethrin, which is commonly used as both a pesticide and a medication to treat conditions like scabies and head lice, according to the National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC). Permethrin is an effective pesticide because it causes muscle spasms, paralysis, and death in insects, the NPIC reports on its website.
According to the study's abstract, researchers who worked on the study tested permethrin-treated clothing's effect on "three important tick vectors of human pathogens": the blacklegged tick, the lone star tick, and the American dog tick. As Live Science described, researchers found that 100 percent of adult ticks placed on a pair of nontreated pants tilted at a 45-degree angle remained on the pants after five minutes. But when ticks were placed on pants treated with permethrin, also tilted at a 45-degree angle, 42.5 percent of them fell off. And those that didn't fall off got "seriously messed up," Live Science reported. A statement about the study published on EurekAlert noted, "A five-minute exposure to permethrin-treated clothing led to loss of normal movement for all ticks of all three species and life stages for at least one hour."
The movement-limiting irritation permethrin causes ticks is called the "hot-foot effect," according to Dr. Lars Eisen, research entomologist at the CDC's National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases and senior author on the study. The hot-foot effect "causes the ticks to drop off from vertically oriented treated textile designed to mimic a pant leg or the arm of a shirt," Eisen said in the statement. "We also found that sustained contact with permethrin-treated clothing—up to five minutes—resulted in loss of normal movement for all examined tick species and life stages, leaving them unable to bite."
Ticks that are unable to bite is basically the dream, considering ticks are a serious bearer of, among other illnesses, Lyme disease. Lyme disease is common in ticks in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic, and upper Midwest, according to the CDC, and can cause the classic bull's-eye-shaped erythema migrans rash, along with headaches and neck stiffness, severe joint pain and swelling, facial palsy, heart palpitations, inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, nerve pain, and short-term memory problems. So it's important to avoid bites as much as possible.
But thankfully, the researchers on this study found some strong evidence that "permethrin-treated clothing has promise as a personal protective measure to prevent bites by medically important ticks in the United States," they said in the study report. And though this research is new, permethrin-treated clothes aren't; as Live Science pointed out, folks (rightfully, TBH) worried about tick exposure can already purchase pretreated permethrin-coated clothes.
According to Live Science, researchers on this study said they weren't certain how long permethrin treatments on clothes stay effective, "because all the clothes they tested were 'pristine' and freshly treated," but added that "these results do suggest real benefits to permethrin-treated socks, pants and other clothes." Eisen said in the statement posted on EurekAlert that future research building off this information will aim to improve public health recommendations by figuring out just how long the treatments last. "Ultimately, we'd like to be able to provide more specific guidance about the use of permethrin-treated clothing, including what types of clothing provide the best protection," he explained.
The more information, the better, of course, but for now, if you think a tick might snag you at your next barbecue or on your next hike, it's definitely not a bad idea to grab some permethrin-treated clothes to keep the bugs at bay. You can also follow other tick prevention best practices, such as wearing long sleeves and pants, tucking your pants into your socks (seriously), having someone check you for ticks after potential exposure, and showering after a hike or time outside. Tick-borne illnesses are no fun at all, and prevention is always the best medicine.