Two summers ago my mother suddenly became very sick. She had a horrible headache and high fever. No one knew exactly what was wrong with her. Because she lives on Cape Cod (tick haven) and is lucky to have a very savvy doctor, she was tested for various tick-borne illnesses. We wouldn’t have been surprised to hear she’d contracted Lyme disease, as it’s very prevalent on Cape Cod. In fact, the conventional treatment in that part of the country is to give antibiotics to anyone exposed to a tick bite, whether the tick is tested for Lyme, or not. Now, I’m not a big pusher of antibiotics, but Lyme disease is nothing you want to play around with. If not treated early, it can lead to life-long chronic conditions such as Lyme arthritis, heart arrhythmia and memory difficulties¹.
Try to catch a screening of Under Our Skin, a sobering, thought-provoking movie by Open Eye Pictures about the seriousness of Lyme Disease and the struggles of those infected. There is a huge divide between believers in chronic Lyme Disease and those who are convinced it doesn’t exist. The movie chronicles several individuals’ long battle with disease and their frustrated efforts to obtain quality medical care. It also shows how Dr. Alan MacDonald has uncovered a plausible connection between the Lyme disease spirochete (Borrelia burgdorferi ) cysts and the plaques of Alzheimer’s disease.²
It turns out that my mother had not one, but two nasty tick-borne infections and neither one was Lyme disease! She was instead co-infected with babesiosis and anaplasmosis. (Yup, one tick can carry and transmit two diseases.) We could have chalked it up to chance, but my uncle was also diagnosed with babesiosis, as was a family friend. Meanwhile, my aunt (not married to the uncle with babesiosis) had a confirmed case of anaplasmosis. Now, that’s a lot of people, all within two degrees of separation, coming down with “rare” tick illnesses.
The Massachusetts Office of Health and Human Services describes the types of tick-borne diseases, indicating that brushy, grassy and wooded areas are where ticks are found. Here in Massachusetts I have seen many a tick swaying at the top of a piece of beach grass just waiting to latch onto the next unsuspecting person to walk by.
Curiously, an observational study conducted in Northern California found that the western black-legged ticks love wood. Researchers attempted to lure ticks by performing different activities in the woods (collecting wood, sitting on leaf litter, sitting on logs, walking through leaves, etc.) and counting the ticks they collected on their clothing. Sitting on logs and leaning against trees won hands down. The researchers postulate that the ticks are fond of wood because the western black-legged tick feeds on the western fence lizard, which in turn spends a lot of time sunning on logs.³
What should we do?
Many of us have seen the usual lists of tick prevention tips which tell us to wear long sleeves and pants; tuck our pant legs into our socks; wear light colored clothing (to better see the ticks); wear a DEET-based repellent; or wear clothing that contains permethrin (a neurotoxin).
I hope some more “natural” insect repellents are soon proven effective against ticks, because I can’t quite bring myself to use DEET or permethrin.
Some other suggestions:
• Perform a tick check on yourself and your children immediately after walking in the woods or through tall grass, and especially after sitting on a log! Ticks in the nymph state are very small, so look carefully. Ticks also tend to climb, so check behind your ears.
• If possible, take a shower or bath after tromping through areas ticks like. You can wash ticks off if they haven’t had sufficient time to burrow under the skin.
• The sooner you find a tick, the better. The tick usually needs to be attached for at least 36 hours before it can transit the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.
• Know your ticks. Certain ticks transmit certain diseases. The black-legged, or deer tick, is the one that carries Lyme disease, anaplasmosis and babesiosis. The dog tick carries Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
• You may want to skip the sunscreen/insect repellent combination products. According the the Environmental Working Group:
…sunscreens often contain penetration enhancers. Studies indicating that concurrent use of sunscreens and pesticides leads to increased skin adsorption of the pesticide (Brand 2003; Kasichayanula 2005; Pont 2003; Pont 2004; Wang 2006; Wang 2007).
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