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Fighting deer ticks with natural repellents

More people are turning to natural remedies but questions remain if they are effective

FREEPORT, Maine — May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month when Mainers are urged to use precautions against deer ticks that carry Lyme and other diseases. 

This year's theme from the Maine CDC is "Stop, Check, Prevent," reminding people to check for ticks because personal prevention measures are the best way to protect yourself and your family.

But an increasing number of people are shunning synthetic repellents in favor of natural remedies but questions remain if they can do the job effectively.

Before 4-year-old Anna Kelley heads for the swing set, out comes the repellent against deer ticks that carry Lyme diseases and other illnesses. 

But instead of synthetic spray such as DEET, which can be toxic in large doses especially for children, her mom uses a blend of essential oils she makes herself.

"I dilute it in witch hazel and so that's the carrier that gets it on their skin, I spray it on their clothes and socks and shoes," Anna's mom, Sarah Kelley said. 

Kelley is an Independent Wellness Advocate for doTerra, a company that sells essential oils. She uses oils derived from plants that can naturally repel ticks including, rosemary, lavender, cedarwood, and citronella. 

"They are not going to choose my leg because it doesn't smell good, it's acting like a plant they have no interest being on," Kelley said.

Chuck Lubelyczyk is a field biologist with the Vector-borne Disease Laboratory at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute. He said some natural repellents, can have some effect on deer ticks but have a much lesser impact on dog ticks. 

"Lemon oil of eucalyptus that you would put on similar to DEET. It can be put on your clothing or your skin that can repel ticks and mosquitoes," Lubelczyk said. 

But he said there have been few clinical studies to test the effectiveness of essential oils as tick repellents. 

"There is not a lot of efficacy data and lot of testing that's been done, to say these actually do work," Lubelczyk pointed out.

Lubelczyk said while DEET repels ticks, permethrin actually kills them. Permethrin should not be applied to bare skin because it will cause irritation. But it can be very effective when applied to clothing and left to dry for 24 hours.

Despite using natural repellent, putting down mulch, and other barriers against ticks, this nature-loving family does occasionally find a tick on someone's skin. Underscoring the importance of doing daily tick checks from head to toe.

"I comb through their hair, when they are getting undressed, I check their bodies and check their own bodies," Kelley said. 

Maine Lyme disease data, including near real-time data, click here.

For information on EPA-registered repellents against ticks and mosquitoes, click here

Click here for resources and information on Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses from the Centers for Disease Control.