It’s a regular part of our summer bedtime routine – my two kids sitting cross-legged on the floor, heads bent forward while I meticulously search through their thick, black locks for ticks.
While this routine may seem a little tedious at times, it’s one of the ways I make sure they don’t get one of the growing health threats associated with spending time outdoors – Lyme disease.
How can you get Lyme disease? And how do you prevent it?
These are two questions any parent who wants to enjoy the outdoors safely should have in mind.
Keep reading, because I’m going to share with you 5 ways to prevent getting this fearsome health problem without the use of harmful chemicals. I use these methods consistently to keep me and my family safe from the threat of Lyme disease.
Lyme Disease Is No Joke!
Recent news about Lyme Disease reminds me that this vigilance is well-founded – Lyme disease has caused an estimated 20,000 infections in the US each year.
The highest concentration of cases are found in the northeastern US and the Great Lakes area. But it is creeping west of the Mississippi and has taken a pretty solid foothold on the west coast as well. You can look at this map of where Lyme disease cases have been reported to assess how high your risk is based on where you live.
What To Expect If You Get Lyme Disease
The first step to preventing Lyme disease is to understand its impact. The more you understand how debilitating this disease can be, the more you’ll take preventative measures seriously.
Lyme disease is nothing to take lightly. If caught early, a 2-week round of antibiotics can effectively eliminate it from your body. But if you miss the infection’s first stages, it can develop into chronic pain and serious health problems. Intravenous antibiotics are then necessary.
As the disease progresses, it can lead to complications in the nervous system, heart, and joints.
The damage caused by this disease can lead to chronic pain, sleep problems, fatigue, difficulties concentrating and more.
And even after the disease is gone, the damage done continues to plague people with something that may be an autoimmune disorder called Post-Lyme Syndrome for which there is no conventional cure.
You can usually – but not always – spot an infection by looking for the following symptoms:
· A red, circular, expanding rash around the bite
· Stiff neck
· Muscle and/or joint pain.
These symptoms usually begin within 30 days of being bitten by a tick.
However, because these symptoms are often similar to other health problems, doctors also use blood tests to verify infection. But even these tests yield both false-positives and false-negatives, adding to the challenge of accurately diagnosing Lyme.
So not only is Lyme disease tough on your body, but it’s difficult to identify in order to secure the best treatment. Consequently – as with most health concerns – prevention is the best cure.
So How Can You Get Lyme Disease?
The second important step for preventing infection is to know how you get Lyme disease.
A bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi, causes the disease.
Its accomplice is the black-legged tick, also known as the deer tick. The deer tick transports this disease from warm body to warm body with its bites. When a tick latches onto an infected animal, usually a deer or mouse, it takes in the bacteria with the animal’s blood as it feeds.
The tick, now a carrier, then waits on a tall blade of grass or in the leaf litter to jump onto another warm-blooded creature passing through and latch on.
So when you go outside to explore the woods, saunter through a field, or simply fetch an errant ball that’s rolled into the long grass at the side of the nicely trimmed lawn, you might be putting yourself right in the tick’s path.
Often we think this is more of a summer threat, but that’s actually a myth. These ticks have a two-year life cycle and are active early spring into late fall. In fact the adults are most active in October-November, according to University of New Hampshire entymologist, Alan Eaton.
I remember spending one blissful October afternoon on a Maine hillside with some friends and their kids only to find more ticks than I’d ever seen marching through my children’s hair that afternoon.
But before you panic and decide to write off outdoor adventuring because of this threat, take note:
1. With a little bit of strategy you can prevent ticks from having access to you and your children’s bodies.
2. Vigilance pays off. It can take as much as 36 hours for the bacteria to be transferred into your body. So the quicker you locate and remove a tick, the more likely you’ll avoid infection. In fact, according to the National Library of Medicine, most people bitten by ticks do not get Lyme disease. Most likely because by removing the tick early, you can prevent infection.
So here are my tips for making sure you don’t get Lyme disease:
Tip#1 So You Don’t Get Lyme Disease: Make Your Yard Inhospitable To Ticks
Make your yard tick-unfriendly. Deer ticks love leaves, detritus and long grass. Keep your grass short. And clear brush away from frequently used areas. And by the way, free-ranging poultry, especially chickens and guinea fowl, make great tick patrols. I love watching are chickens as they form a long dragnet while they sweep the yard. I know nothing will survive their scrutiny!
Tip #2 So You Don’t Get Lyme Disease: Use Physical Barriers
When you do venture into tick territory – less manicured areas and woods – prevent them from getting to your skin: Wear long pants, tucked into your socks and tuck your shirt into your waist as well.
I know, it looks kind of dorky. But when you think about the problems you’re avoiding, it’s not so bad!
Tip #3 So You Don’t Get Lyme Disease: Use Natural Repellents
Conventional recommendations include spraying 20-50% DEET on clothing and skin or treat your clothing with permethrin (not for skin!). However, DEET has been associated with neurological problems (Gulf War Syndrome). Studies have shown that DEET may be a carcinogen and an endocrine disruptor.
Fortunately, nature has provided some good alternatives:
- Wild Tomato Ever notice the strong odor from tomato plants? Well ticks do. Researchers at North Carolina University have found a compound found in wild tomatoes to be more effective than DEET in repelling ticks. It’s EPA approved and you can find this compound in BioUD insect repellent formulas. The label states that this will repel ticks for 2 hours.
- Geraniol Geraniol is a compound identified by researchers at the University of Florida as more effective than DEET in repelling ticks. Says researcher, Jerry Butler, “[Geraniol] is in lemongrass; it’s in lots of plants. We even make a little of it ourselves.” It is being extracted from grasses to produce repellents. Rose geranium oil, a popular herbal repellent against ticks, contains this compound as well.
We’ve actually done experiments using geraniol with captured ticks. First we watched it crawl quickly towards the warmth of my foot. Then we placed rose geranium oil in its way. It immediately turned around and went the other way. Wherever we put this essential oil, it would turn on a dime and go in the other direction.
- Piparidin Piparidin, an extraction from peppers has been approved by the EPA to use against ticks. It has been rated as practically non-toxic to slightly toxic in studies.
- Extracts of garlic and tea tree oil have been found in research to be effective in killing ticks.
- Other botanicals that have shown promise in studies are a species of rhododendron , citronella, cloves, and lily of the valley
You may need to be more diligent about reapplying these compounds since essential oils often don’t have the staying power of DEET. But given their safety and effectiveness, I’d rather use these than a potential neurotoxin and carcinogen.
Tip #3 So You Don’t Get Lyme Disease: Brush Off
For years we had a sign on our front door that I hope too many visitors didn’t take personally, “Brush Off”. It was a reminder to us all to do our best to get an unwanted hitchhiker off of us when we came in from the outdoors.
Here’s what I mean by “brush off”. Starting with your head use your hands to brush away at your hair, neck, armpits, arms, groin, legs and finally feet. It’s not necessarily foolproof since a tick that has latched on will not be so easily removed. But it will help dislodge many of the ticks that have gotten through our defenses. A couple times we’ve seen one drop and start crawling away.
If you have pets that accompany you outside, make sure you give them a good brush off as well.
Hint: We also do this periodically when we’re roaming around outdoors.
Tip #4 So You Don’t Get Lyme Disease: Shower
Yale researchers have found that people who take showers after spending time outdoors are less likely to contract Lyme disease.
It’s pretty obvious why. An extension of the brush off, by scrub-a-dubbing you are likely to wash ticks down the drain. Make sure you shampoo and give yourself a nice scalp massage. As well as thoroughly scrub groin and armpits (where ticks like to hide) as well.
Tip #5 So You Don’t Get Lyme Disease: Tick Check
Finally, perform a thorough tick check. Use extra care when looking around the scalp, behind the ears, in the armpits and groin. These are ticks’ favorite hiding spots.
This is important: The ticks you’re looking for are extremely tiny – no bigger than a poppy seed – and dark. Make sure you do this in a well-lighted area. My husband has pretty dark skin so I often shine a flashlight directly on his scalp as I look to make things clearer.
If you do find one attached, use a pair of tweezers, grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible and firmly pull it off. Do not use a match, petroleum jelly or nail polish. These methods may only increase the chance that the tick will transfer the bacteria into you. Clean the bite with an antibacterial agent like Neosporin or tea-tree oil, after removal.
Quick detection and removal is key. If you remove the tick within the first 36 hours, your chance of infection is extremely small. However remain vigilant for any symptoms since early diagnosis can mean a better chance for a full and speedy recovery.
Finally keep the tick in a bottle. If any signs of infection develop you can bring it with you to the doctors, test it for the bacteria and more easily verify whether you have an infection.
Now You’ve Got The Info You Need To Stay Safe!
Now you know how you can get Lyme disease, what it is and what you can do to prevent it. Put these tactics to work and you’ll dramatically lower your family’s risk of getting this disease.
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