Preventing Tick Bites and Avoiding Lyme Disease

An Interview with Tick Expert, Dr. Thomas Mather

Dr. Thomas Mather is a widely respected authority on tick ecology, tick-borne illnesses, and tick bite prevention and treatment. He has been working with Insect Shield for many years. We like to think of him as the “Bill Nye the Science Guy” of the tick world. Here’s a recent interview talking about the threat of ticks, resources on his website, his free tick identification service “TickSpotters,” and his latest initiative called “Be Ready for Ticks.”

About TickEncounter 

Dedicated to engaging, educating and empowering people to take tick bite protection actions to avoid tick-borne diseases, is a wealth of information and resources including:

  • TickSpotters: A free service that provides users with accurate, timely tick identification information, as well as science-based risk assessments tailored to their tick. 
  • TickSmart: Effective strategies to make tick-bite protection simple and easy.
  • Field Guide to Ticks: An interactive map of the USA that shows what kinds of ticks are active in which regions and at what times of the year, with great photos and links to more detailed info. 
  • Be Ready for Ticks: A campaign that uses attention-grabbing signs and a QR code to offer simple tips to anyone who visits an area where ticks can be found.

Explore tick repellent clothing & gear

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Transcript of the Interview

Mark at Insect Shield

We're here with Dr. Thomas Mather of the University of Rhode Island. He's actually a Professor of Public Health entomology. Hi, Tom, how's it going? Tom is an authority on preventing Lyme disease and he's quite sought after. I think you just finished a show with the Today Show. Is that right? 

We're going to put links to all of your information and resources below the video here. You're kind of an authority in this area, people call on you to present. I think you've made appearances on various TV shows. We've worked with Tom for many years now in various capacities. We consider him one of the experts that we consult with, about insects and Insect Shield, and how we can do a better job helping people to avoid tick bites, what to do with the tick bite, and awareness of Lyme and those kinds of things. 

So I thought, Tom, today we can just take a few minutes and talk about some of the resources that you offer. TickEncounter is a website, And then you've got something called TickSpotters, which is for people that actually find a tick on themselves and remove it, and they can send a tick in to you [NOTE: actually you send in a photo of the tick, not the tick itself] to be evaluated, which is really a nice service. That's a free service. And then you've got something that you're working on right now, which is called “Be ready for ticks”. I think that's gonna be great, maybe one of the things we really want to focus on. So how does that sound, Tom? 

Dr. Tom Mather

Great. Thanks for the opportunity to share.

Mark at Insect Shield

So the TickEncounter website, that's supported by the University of Rhode Island, is that right? That's been around for a while.

Dr. Tom Mather

We launched it in 2006. One of the ideas was sort of, you know, there's Bill Nye the Science Guy. And so we need the same kind of thing to try and make tick science a little bit more approachable for people. We kind of thought through what people offer on their websites, and one of the things that we really strive for, we realized that people use the term “tick” rather generically. 

For instance, every year in the springtime, I get calls for interviews, and people always start this way. How are the ticks going to be this year? Well, most people, I think, say bad. But that's not always the case. It depends on which kind of tick and where you are. And so I back the reporters up usually and say, well, we need to break this down just a little bit. So which tick do you want to know How bad is it going to be? And where are you? Where are you going to be reporting to? Because it may or may not be a concern there. 

And so that sort of surprises people. And I think that that's the kind of thing being both temporally and geographically relevant to people. So one of my blogs on TIckEncounter is early on in my career, people would go out, and I'd be doing some tick literacy work with them and everything. And they'd just be kind of like shaking their heads, “Doc, just tell me what I need to know, when I need to know it. That's all I want.” 

And I think that's probably true for most people, they just want to be told when they need to do something. And what it is specifically, they don't want some kind of hidden meaning message. You know, if it is wear tick repellent clothes, don't just say that, because I got some tick repellent here. It says tick repellent. I'm going to spray it on my clothes. Now let's be specific about what works: permethrin treated clothing works, right. And other sprays on your clothing don't necessarily work. And let's be specific. 

And I think that that's really the essence of what we try to do with TickEncounter, sort of call it like we see it, from our experience of being tick scientists. I think that's what the general public is really looking for. You know, they want someone that they can trust that has these experiences that they can bring to bear and then how do we try to engage them. So we tell them what they need to know when they need to know it.

Mark at Insect Shield

All right. And you just revamped your website, I think it's doing a really great job of helping people to do that. So everything is clearly delineated, and somebody gets there. You know, we totally understand that point. I think you were talking about the fact that if somebody arrives at a trail, like you've said, and you have a sign that says, wear light colored clothing, or even, you know, tick repellent clothing, that is not helpful at that point. So you've been thinking about that, too. Before we get into that, let's talk about the TickSpotters service a little bit. So that's also something that you've been doing quite a while.

Dr. Tom Mather

Right. So when we launched TickSpotters it had kind of a funny beginning. We were thinking about dogs, dogs as being tick spotters, we thought people like looking at pictures of other people's dogs. So we'll just have a page of people's dog pictures, you can send in a picture of your dog, your tick spotter, because you're finding ticks on dogs, and they're finding ticks for you to find, right. 

So we had for a very short period of time, a whole page full of dog pictures, and people would send us their dog picture. I, you know, we were impressed by how many pictures, you know how many websites had pictures of dogs, people like to look at other people's dogs. And so, but then we didn't pay much attention to it. But we put up a form so that people could put pictures of their ticks. And we actually didn't pay much attention to it. 

Then one day, one of our people said, you know, we got a lot of traffic coming in on that. And I'm like, well, how much traffic and they said, well, like, 2000 submissions. And I'm like, and we haven't done anything about that. So it was just, you send it to us, we're not giving you anything back. So we rethought through the process a little bit, and found that in its current form, and was launched about 2014, where it's really a crowdsource tick survey that also is a portal to a tick expert. So it turns out, where are you going to find somebody to help you? 

So one of the issues that we've sort of discovered is that over the last 30-40 years, there used to be this network in America, of county extension agents, people that were experts in just about, you know, they weren't experts in any given thing. But they were expert enough in many things that they could be helpful to the average US citizen. But unfortunately, that system has eroded away over time, just due to lack of funding and whatever. And so now, there are some states that have still fairly active networks of outreach and cooperative extension, but many states, it's gone by the wayside, it's hard, you're hard pressed to find a public health entomologist. Where are you going to find one, right? 

And so here's an opportunity, again, when you need to know it, when you found a tick on yourself or your seven year old, you want a tick expert. And so how are you going to do that? And that's what TickSpotters does. 

When we first started it, we actually thought Oh, this will be a passive surveillance for tick activity. But the more I've done it, the more I realized that what people really appreciate about it is getting back information of what they found and how anxious should they be about that tick that was on them? What's their next best action to take? And what can they do to, you know, they may not be asking for this, but everyone seems to appreciate it [and they say] thank you for telling me what I can do to help keep from getting another tick. And so it really opens up this portal to a tick expert. Kind of an approach. 

So they're getting a tailored message back. And within 24 hours. You know, for the last three years, we've tried very hard to be responsive in less than 24 hours because we learned that if we take two days to get back to them, nothing happens. They're still fine. They're on to something else. They even forgot they had gotten a tick bite. Right? Sometimes, but if you're back to them right away, there's no better engagement opportunity for building someone's tick literacy, in the heat of the moment when they are in anxiety mode. 

So there's a lot of teachable things. We have on TickEncounter, we have five core, tick smart actions. We can get into that if we have time. But one of them is everyone should know what types of ticks occur in the area that they live or visit, and what time of year they're active, and what germs they might carry. And you might say, Well, of course, they all they all carry germs. But that's not true. Different types of ticks carry different types of germs.

Learn More about Ticks in Your Area:

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And for instance, everyone's concerned about Lyme disease. Well, it turns out that black legged ticks or Western black legged ticks on [the west] coast, are the ticks that generally are the only ones that transmit the germ that causes Lyme disease. And so someone gets American dog tick isn't going to get Lyme disease from that tick, that they don't know that until someone tells them, they don't know that that's an American dog tick, sometimes, until someone tells them, they might have an idea about it. But what we've learned through eight years of TickSpotters, is that people's ability to recognize and correctly identify the tick that they have on them is woefully in need of additional training, to put it nicely.

Mark at Insect Shield

Yeah, and that's something that I've noticed. I've been at Insect Shield for about 15 months. And there is a lot of information. I mean, if you start googling to find out about ticks, it's not all authoritative information, and you're not getting through to an actual tick expert. And those websites don't have [a service where] you can send in [a tick] to get more info or anything like that. 

A lot of the lists [on how to prevent tick bites] say nothing about permethrin treated clothes, for example. And that's just kind of very surprising to me. It's like, “Tuck your pants into your socks.” Well, how about tucking permethrin treated pants into permethrin treated socks, wouldn't that do a lot better job? So anyway, I think this is awesome, what you're offering. 

And along those lines, you know, telling people what they need to know when they need to know it, you've come up with a kind of a new idea here called “Be ready for ticks.” So let's talk about that a little bit. I think that's got a lot of potential.

Dr. Tom Mather

I agree, Mark, we're really excited about this concept. And we're just at the beginning phases of it. Now we're actually looking for some early adopters, and people that are willing to think about using it. We hope that someone might be watching this and they say, “Oh that would work well for my park, or my dog park or something. We need this kind of information out there.” 

So here's the scenario. And I have to admit it, it wasn't necessarily my idea, but one of my very clever project managers said, you know, “I was out of the country for years, and now I came back. And it's like, we wanted to go for a hike with the family and everything. But there was a sign that said, “Warning: Ticks”, and what did it say? It said, wear light colored clothing. 

“Well, we drove to this place and saw this sign.” And then I started looking around. Where's the rack of light-colored clothing? You know, because there's nothing I can do about it at this point, right? It's like, you look down. Oh, man, I'm wearing blue jeans. Now, what do you do? Pack the kids back in the car and go home? It's like, you know, No. So our “Be ready for ticks” campaign is a sign that's driven by a QR code. Everyone now after the after the COVID pandemic knows how to use QR codes if they ever wanted to get something from a menu or something. So hands free, right? 

Mark at Insect Shield

For folks that maybe haven't heard of a QR code, it's the kind of little square with what looks like just a dot pattern. And you can hold your phone camera up to it, and it will read that and it'll take you to a website.

Dr. Tom Mather

Yeah. So in this case, it takes you to a “Be ready for ticks” page on that tells you what you could do right now standing in front of the sign where it says “Warning: ticks.” What could I do right now? And then it also will tell you what could I do when I get home? It also tells you what to do if you find a tick: You can go to TickSpotters. And it also tells you what to do to be ready for ticks before you go out again, like, now you have time to get some permethrin treated clothing. And wear that the next time so you're ready for ticks. And so this concept of, you know, it's built into, just tell me what I need to know when I need to know it. 

A great story came up for me, maybe a little bit less than a month ago now. I was going tick collecting at a location and there was a kiosk and there was a sign, not our sign, unfortunately. But the people were looking at the trail map and everything. There was a grandpa, his daughter, and a seven year old. So it's a nice range of ages. 

And so I was busy getting ready to go tick collecting. I saw them and I thought for a second as I was getting ready to walk past them. And I turned back and I said, make sure you walk in the middle of the trails. And the grandpa looked at me kind of weird. And he goes, why? And I said, Well, there's ticks out there, if you get too close to the edge, you're likely to encounter them. And I had my tick flag. And so I put it down on the edge, right where we're standing. I lifted it up. And I looked and there was a little nymphal black legged tick there. And I said, and this is what you would have to find. And they were aghast. 

You know, I'm surprised they didn't turn around and go home and the mother said, Well, what can we do? And I said, and I pointed to her and I said one thing you could all do is tuck your shirts in. And she couldn't have tucked her shirt in any faster. You know, she’s jamming her shirt into her shorts. And I'm like, Okay, and then make sure you walk in the middle of the trail. And then it like this little light bulb went off in my head because I knew they could go online and see that. 

And so I said, Oh, I can show you. And so I said here, just go to right on our homepage right now we have this, and this QR code will link to this new campaign. And so she did and I said what's the first thing say? And she scrolled down, she said, tuck in your shirt, and I said, Check! You did it, and walk in the middle of the trails. Check! You're going to, right? And so then that got them all engaged with this, how small a tick was and what other types of ticks they might encounter there and everything. 

And then she said, after seeing little poppy seed side size tick that I had collected, she said, “Well, I found something a little bit bigger than that on my son just yesterday, and so she had a picture of it on her phone. So she opened the picture. And it was a three day engorged black legged tick nymph. So the kid already was bitten by a potentially risky tick. From our area one in four of these ticks is carrying some kind of germs, especially the Lyme disease germ, and the longer it was attached, the more likely it will be to have transmitted its germs. So if that had been an infected tick, that kid had probably been infected. 

She didn't know, right. And it's like, that's the kind of thing that she could have used TickSpotters for: she would have gotten that information back. Well, she had the tick guy there to tell her. And so now all of a sudden, she was more aware of what she needed to think about. Now they went on their hike, which was good. They didn't have any light colored clothes on, but they felt far more confident that they knew what to do because they had this “Be ready for ticks” resource.

Mark at Insect Shield

That makes a lot of sense. And just getting the immediacy of what you can do at that time, I think is really great. And then to follow up. So I think we've really given a good sort of overview, and what are you going to do about getting that sign out into the public? I mean, I think that Insect Shield plans to be a support in that effort. We talked about that a little bit. So, there are companies out there, I think you've talked to some others that would like to support your efforts. What other thoughts do you have about getting people involved? And how can we help with that?

Dr. Tom Mather

So what we're trying to do now is just connect with other people's networks. Let's just imagine everyone out there that's hearing this probably has some group that they either know of or are affiliated with, that attracts the general public to an outdoor setting. So whether it's a campground or a favorite trail at a local town park or something like that, if it's potentially tick habitat, doesn't have to be black legged tick habitat. It could be any tick habitat, because protection is what we're talking about. And getting people engaged in tick literacy and thinking about ticks. 

So, hey, make a suggestion to your local officials or whoever manages that dog park. I mean, just think about that 50 people a day that come and bring their dog to the dog park that don't necessarily have any information that's relevant to them right now. And now, they have this sign at the gate at the dog park: I need to be ready for ticks. Because I may find one when I get home and start looking at my dog. There could be one that'll walk right off that dog and on to me, and then what am I going to do with that? I could send that picture into TickSpotters. And they'll tell me what kind of tick it is and what it's likely to infect me with, if it were to bite me, or at least maybe give me some guidance as to, oh, maybe I should look into getting some Insect Shield clothing before I go there the next time or something like that. Right? So very specific information for helping people be ready for ticks.

Mark at Insect Shield

Yes, excellent. Because something we probably want to stress here is that Lyme disease is not a fun thing. I mean, some people have this prolonged infection, and that can have some really serious consequences. And just preventing ticks in the first place is a lot easier, a lot less expensive, a lot less of a stressor, than, once you find a tick, what to do. So I think we really want to emphasize that. But if you do find a tick, or if you know if you're going out in the woods, we hope you see one of Dr. Tom Mather’s signs out there to be ready for ticks. And, [let’s] strive to try to support this effort in any way that you can and we're going to do that too – Insect Shield. So, Tom, I thank you very much for your time today.

Dr. Tom Mather

Thanks for talking with me, Mark.