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

Lyme Disease, Deer Ticks, and Campers

Summer camp season finally has arrived and you are busy packing up your children for what most likely will be a memorable few weeks away from home. However, there is one hidden threat at camp that you probably know very little about, but for which you can be better prepared – and that is the very tiny, but deadly, deer tick. Not only do the bites of deer ticks put your children at risk for Lyme disease, but also other potentially debilitating tick-borne diseases including babesiosis, anaplasmosis, bartonella, mycoplasma, tularemia, and viruses.


Ticks are parasites which survive by feeding on the blood of a variety of hosts including people. The peak of the deer tick’s activity begins in May and continues throughout the summer. It is during this time that the very tiny nymphal deer ticks (about the size of poppy seeds) are most likely to crawl onto your child, bite them, and infect them with Lyme disease or other tick-borne diseases.


Deer ticks seek hosts by a behavior called “questing.” They do not jump or fly. Questing ticks crawl up the stems of grass or small bushes, or perch on the edges of leaf litter with their front legs extended. They also wait for you on fallen logs, stone walls or in vegetation along woodland trails. When your body or clothing comes in contact with the extended legs of the tick, they quickly grab onto you and search for a suitable place on your body to attach and take their blood meal. Nymphal deer ticks will remain attached for several days until they become fully engorged with your blood and then drop off. Most often you will never know they were ever there.


Not all deer ticks that bite you will infect you with Lyme disease or one of the other tick-borne diseases. You cannot become infected with these pathogens unless the tick itself is infected. Unfortunately for campers, a high percentage of ticks in camping areas can carry one or several of these diseases, any one or combination of which, can infect them and make them very sick. Removing ticks promptly can help prevent the transmission of Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases. And that is why regular tick checks, both after outdoor activities and at the end of the day, are so very important to campers. Campers should also be aware of their own state of health. And if you develop flu-like or other unusual symptoms at camp, take note that you may have a tick-borne disease, and promptly seek assistance from your camp doctor/nurse.


If you discover a tick attached to you, your camp doctor/nurse should remove the tick using pointed tweezers to grab the tick as close to the skin as possible. They should pull the tick straight out, taking care not to twist or squish it. Finally, they should wash the bite site and apply an antiseptic. If at all possible, they should save the tick so that it can be sent to a tick testing lab for identification, and a finding as to whether it is infected with any disease organisms. Campers should contact their parents, who should seek the assistance of their family health care provider for advice on initiating prophylactic treatment. Timing is critical in treating tick-borne diseases.


If your children are at camp in forested or other outdoor environments, it is strongly recommended that you pack tick repellent clothing for them. You should provide 4 or 5 sets of treated clothing for them to take to camp. The clothing should be treated with permethrin, an insecticide which repels and kills ticks, and which has been approved by the EPA as safe for use on clothing apparel. You can treat your own clothing (good for 5 washings) and footwear with permethrin spray, or purchase pre-treated clothing (good for 70 washings) with the proprietary Insect Shield label from suppliers such as: REI, LLBean, ExOfficio, Orvis, etc. Wearing an EPA-approved insect repellent on exposed skin parts will also provide added protection, but by itself, does not work nearly as effectively as tick repellent clothing.