How to enjoy being outside throughout the summer months while worrying about Lyme disease.
I’m that friend.
The friend who checks out your Facebook photos and comments “tick check!” every time you post a picture of a hike in the woods, or of your child rolling in the grass.
I don’t mean to be annoying, or maternal. It’s just that I’m terrified. Terrified that you, or your family member, could miss a tick bite or a diagnosis, and wind up like me. Terrified that I, despite being covered in bug spray and being neurotic about tick checks, could miss a new bite, and get re-infected or get a new tick-borne illness.
My fears are well founded. Tick numbers are on the rise this year, and the risk of infection while simply attending a backyard barbeque are high—not just in New England, but anywhere across the country, and in many places around the world. In a recent New York Times article “Tick and Mosquito Infections Spreading Rapidly, C.D.C. Finds”, the Center for Disease Control’s director of vector-borne disease says, “The numbers on some of these diseases have gone to astronomical levels.”
It can be hard to understand the importance of vigilance until you’ve dealt with tick-borne disease first hand. Until you’ve been bedridden for months, or years, with what feels like a combination of the flu and a hangover; until you’ve wrestled such severe insomnia that you’re almost driven to suicide; until you’ve battled brain fog so pervasive that it leaves you at a loss for words. You don’t want to experience these or any of the other symptoms either, and you certainly don’t want your child or pets to do so.
Some might call me crazy, or anxious, or high-strung, for carrying bug spray in my purse, for commenting on other people’s photos, for reminding those friends who are going camping to do tick checks. But it’s taken me over a decade to achieve my current level of disease remission. I don’t want you to lose those years of your life. And I don’t want to lose any more of my own.
Nor do I want to wrap myself in a bubble and hide indoors— where ticks can enter anyway, carried by pets or mice. I don’t want to miss time doing my favorite summer activities. But how can we enjoy the outdoors without being paralyzed by the very real fear of Lyme and other tick-borne illnesses? How can we stay sane when we are surrounded by disease-carrying insects that are often smaller than poppy seeds?
Here’s a list of some preventive measures I’ve shared before, as well as some new tips:
- Use insect repellent that contains DEET, or the more natural components of picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus. Treat clothing and outdoor gear with permethrin. Many outdoor clothing companies now sell pre-treated clothes; I just bought a pair of pants and a hoodie that don’t smell at all of bug spray but do put my mind at ease. There are also companies that will treat your clothes for you such as Insectshield.com and others including REI, LLBean, and bugbewear.com make clothes that are already treated. This is a great option if you are sending your child to sleep away camp.
- Carry repellent with you at all times. I always have a small bottle in my purse.
- Wear light-colored, long-sleeved clothing, and long pants. Tuck pants into socks (consider buying the pre-treated kind), wear close-toed shoes and consider coating the shoes with permethrin spray, which you can also buy at any outdoor gear store.
- Put clothes in a dryer for 10-15 minutes as soon as you come inside. High heat kills ticks.
- Stay away—as much as possible—from grassy areas, wooded areas, brush, and leaves. Stick to the center of gravel and dirt paths. This objective is harder, especially when you have kids and pets who want to romp and play, and of course you want to let them. Just be sure to cover them in bug spray first, give them a bath after, and do thorough tick checks every night. Remember to look in tick hiding spots such as the groin, the belly button, behind the ears, and on the scalp.
- Bathe your kids every night. I know in summer it’s nice to be dirty and carefree, and when your kids are swimming in lakes and pools, it doesn’t always seem necessary to bathe them. I used to go for days at camp without a shower. But camp is where I got my tick bite. It doesn’t have to be a lengthy bath or shower. Even if it’s been a long day and your kids are up past their bedtime, take 5-10 minutes to scrub them down—and thoroughly check their bodies for ticks—before bed.
- Do not let pets sleep in your bed. I know, pet lovers, that this one is also tough. But cats and dogs who roam free in the grass and woods can carry ticks you can’t see, and they can bring those ticks into your bed and onto you. Check your pets as thoroughly as you do yourself and your children, even if your pet has been vaccinated or pre-treated for tick-borne illnesses.
- Carry a mini lint brush with you and periodically swipe it over your body and clothes. Ticks that are hard to spot with the naked eye might get picked up with lint paper.
- Consider new outdoor activities. I no longer hike, or walk in grassy areas. I’ve always loved aquatic sports, so I’ve turned my focus to those. I go for walks on city streets and ride a recumbent bike on a paved path. I can still see beautiful landscapes from these areas, without having to be directly in them.
Most importantly, remember that it’s okay—in fact, it’s smart—to be vigilant and concerned. You’re not crazy. You’re not neurotic. If anyone tells you that you are, tell them to read this article. I’ll be that friend to them, too.
Opinions expressed by contributors are their own. Jennifer Crystal is a writer and educator in Boston. Her work has appeared in local and national publications including Harvard Health Publishing and The Boston Globe. As a GLA columnist for over six years, her work on GLA.org has received mention in publications such as The New Yorker, weatherchannel.com, CQ Researcher, and ProHealth.com. Jennifer is a patient advocate who has dealt with chronic illness, including Lyme and other tick-borne infections. Her memoir, One Tick Stopped the Clock, is forthcoming from Legacy Book Press in September 2024. Ten percent of proceeds from the book will go to Global Lyme Alliance. Contact her via email below.