Bob Oley, PE, MSPH
Lyme and Tick-Borne Disease Prevention Expert
Public Health and Site Consultant

Cold Weather Tick Considerations

Ticks have become a year-round problem – from the east coast to the west coast, all across the country – for a variety of reasons. Above all else, there are just so many more of them out there. And though the ticks you find in the fall and winter months differ somewhat from the ones you find in spring and summer, they can make you just as sick with Lyme disease or any number of other tick-borne diseases from their bite.


In the spring and summer months, depending on the part of the country you live in, you generally have to deal with a collection of ticks including deer ticks, Western blacklegged ticks, American dog ticks, brown dog ticks, Lone Star ticks, Gulf Coast ticks, Rocky Mountain wood ticks, or Pacific Coast ticks. But come the fall and winter months, some of these tick species become inactive for a period of time (diapause) until the warmer temperatures of spring return. However, those that do remain are no less dangerous than the warmer weather ticks they supplanted.


Cold-weather ticks include the well-known deer tick if you live in the eastern two-thirds of the country, and the brown dog tick, western-blacklegged tick, and the Pacific Coast tick if you live in the western third of the country. Deer ticks are especially good at surviving cold weather conditions thanks to a protein they carry in their bodies that works much like antifreeze. Consequently, they will appear looking for a host to feed on, whenever temperatures are above 32 degrees and the ground is not frozen or covered with snow.


The only redeeming feature to this seemingly unending tick dilemma is that these remaining cold-weather ticks are usually the adult ticks, and because they are bigger (about the size of a sesame seed) than ticks in immature stages, they are somewhat more noticeable when crawling on you. Unfortunately, because these adult ticks are older than the immature stage ticks and subsequently have had more opportunities to become infected with disease organisms, they are also more likely to be able to transmit them to you with their bite.


To avoid getting bitten by a tick in the seasonally cold months, it is recommended that you wear tick repellent clothing. The clothing should be treated with permethrin, an insecticide that can be purchased from most large sporting goods stores. Permethrin repels and kills ticks and has been approved by the EPA as safe for use on clothing apparel worn by both adults and children. You can treat your own clothing and footwear, or purchase pre-treated clothing with the proprietary Insect Shield label from suppliers such as: REI, LLBean, ExOfficio, Orvis, etc. Once per month you should also spray outdoor shoes, athletic gear, backpacks, camping gear (anything that could end up on the ground outside) with permethrin to keep the ticks away. Wearing an EPA-approved insect repellent on exposed skin parts will also provide added protection, but by itself, does not work as effectively as tick repellent clothing


At the end of the outdoor activity, and certainly by the end of the day, you should conduct full body tick checks of yourself and family members who have gone outside. Be sure to check some of those places you are more likely to find ticks – the more moist parts of your body between your toes, behind your knees, in the navel, groin area, on your back, under your arms, back of neck, behind and in your ears, within body or neck skin folds, or on your scalp. You can never check too often, as ticks can be very hard to find. And if you do find a tick attached to you, safely remove it and seek as soon as possible the advice of your health care giver regarding treatment options. Time is of the essence; immediate treatment can in many instances make the difference between getting well or becoming chronically ill. Save the tick, dead or alive and place it in a zip-lock bag. Different types of ticks carry different disease organisms, and there are labs across the country where the tick can be mailed which will identify the tick for you and test it to see if it is carrying pathogens that you may have been infected with.


If you follow these recommendations and use good common “tick sense” when engaging in cold weather activities, you can steer clear of ticks and avoid the suffering a tick bite can lead to.