According to some local experts, 2017 is shaping up to be an epic year for Lyme disease infections. So what can you do to avoid the coming plague?
1. Do a daily tick check on yourself and your family. Remove all clothing and carefully check for tiny black dots. Ticks are programmed to crawl up - towards your head - they love to feed on the thin, blood rich skin there so make sure to check behind your ears, at your hair line, the nape of your neck, etc., very carefully. But ticks can be anywhere - they may decide just to dig in at one of the other warm spots on your body - armpit, crotch, back of knee, etc.
Keep in mind that ticks come in many different sizes depending on where they are in their life cycle. Deer ticks in the nymphal stage are so small that they can be extremely hard to see - even when you're looking right at one, it can be hard to tell for sure if it's really a thing. So far, in my experience, it is often really a thing, unfortunately.
2. If you find a tick, remove it ASAP! The longer it's biting you, the greater the chance that it will transmit disease. Keep in mind that there's only one right way to remove a tick and a whole lot of wrong ways. Think of the tick as a potentially disease-filled bag. You do not want to squeeze that bag of yucky bacteria into your body through the tick's bite.
Here's what you do:
- Using pointy tweezers, grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible.
- Gently pull the tick in a steady, upward motion. If the tick's mouthparts do not come out with the rest of the tick, don't panic. The mouthparts, alone, can't transmit disease. You can either pick them out like you would a splinter or just leave them there and they'll eventually fall out on their own.
- Wash the area thoroughly with disinfectant and then apply antibacterial ointment.
- Save the tick to identify and to potentially send away for testing. I usually stick them to a piece of tape, pop them in a Ziploc and label it with the date in case I decide to send it for testing.
- If you do want to get the tick tested, you can mail it to Igenex Lab in California or to the LMZ at UMASS Amherst ($50 per tick).
- Watch the area closely for up to a month for signs of a rash that is at least 2 inches in diameter and probably will spread considerably (the tick bite may be red and irritated but a tiny red spot does not mean you have Lyme disease.) If you develop a rash or flu-like symptoms, go see a doctor right away and get on a two week course of antibiotics. Keep in mind that testing for Lyme disease is notoriously unreliable so if you get the rash and/or other symptoms with a tick bite, just get treated.
- You should also insist on being tested for the co-infections that are often transmitted along with Lyme -- babesiosis, anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis are the most common co-infections and will require different treatment from the antibiotics that are used to treat Lyme!
- Touch the tick with your bare hands.
- Squeeze the body of the tick.
- Put alcohol, nail polish remover or Vaseline on the tick.
- Put a hot match or cigarette on the tick in an effort to make it "back out."
3. Avoid contact with grasses, leaf litter, branches - basically, the entire frikkin' outdoors.
4. If you do dare to venture out of doors, wear light-colored, long pants and shirts, and tuck the pants into your socks. I will warn you that this is not a super sexy look (see below) but safety first... If you spend a lot of time mucking about outdoors, you may want to get a pair of high-cut Mucks or Bogs but still tuck your socks into your pants inside them.
5. Consider using insect repellent. I have mixed feelings about this but will sometimes spray my outdoor work clothes and boots with this Permethrin spray when I'm specifically going out to pull up barberry bushes or rake leaves. You spray it once and it lasts quite a long time - even through the wash - which is a little scary.
And we have a bottle of this 20% Picaridin spray that we occasionally use. Again, I have mixed feelings about it all but you should make up your own mind about whether you want to use it or not. You can read more about it on Consumer Reports and on the Connecticut (the original home of Lyme disease) government fact sheet.
6. Reduce tick-friendly (a.k.a mouse-friendly) habitats near your home and widen the borders between the areas you use and any woodlands or meadows. That means keeping things dry, letting lots of light in, and limiting vegetation and stone walls or piles of brush where mice like to hide.
- Keep your grass mowed.
- Remove any leaf litter, brush and weeds at the edge of the lawn.
- Restrict the use of groundcovers like pachysandra in areas frequented by family and roaming pets.
- Remove brush and leaves around stonewalls and wood piles.
- Discourage rodent activity. Clean up and seal stonewalls and small openings around the home and move firewood piles and bird feeders away from the house.
- Keep dogs and cats out of the woods to reduce ticks brought into the home.
- Put up a deer fence.
- Move kid's swing sets and sand boxes away from the woodland edge and place them on a wood chip or mulch type foundation.
- Trim tree branches and shrubs around the lawn edge to let in more sunlight.
- Create a 3-foot or wider wood chip, mulch, or gravel border between lawn and woods or stonewalls. Most tree companies will deliver wood chips for free as will many municipalities so they can be a very affordable option. We get a couple loads a year.
- Widen woodland trails to avoid brushing against branches and leaves.
8. Scatter "Tick Tubes" around your property. Again, you have to be comfortable using an insecticide (Permethrin, in this case) but if you are, these can be a good way to go, especially for rock walls and other mouse-friendly areas. Tick tubes are cardboard tubes filled with cotton that's been treated with permethrin. the idea is that the mice use the cotton to line their nests and the permethrin kills the ticks on them, decreasing your chances of getting bitten. Supposedly, it does not harm the mice but who really knows what effect is has on the food chain. We have used them in rock walls at our home. You can buy a six-pack of the tubes on Amazon for $25 or you could buy a bottle of the Permethrin spray (about $15), get some cotton balls, save some toilet paper or paper towel rolls and make your own for less. If you go that route, be sure to wear gloves and wash your skin thoroughly afterwards.
9. Put up an owl box. A barn owl eats roughly six mice each night and a family of barn owls can eat an astounding 3,000 mice per breeding season. That would be a big help with the mouse problem... Plus, so cool to have owls near your house that you can watch. You can buy a ready-made owl box or build your own. Click here for more information about where to situate your owl box. And remember, you can not use poison of any kind (rat, mouse, etc.) at your property since it will end up poisoning your birds of prey.
My husband built a barn owl box with the kids this fall but so far, no one has taken us up on our offer of hospitality. Here's hoping!
10. Get outdoor cats. By keeping them outside, you eliminate the risk of the animals bringing ticks into your home. Many shelters have way more feral cats on their hands then they know what to do with (and they've been vaccinated and neutered). If you can offer these not-so-socially inclined kitties a warm, covered place to sleep and food and water, the shelter will probably be happy to give you as many as you like. Be mindful that you may have trouble getting feral cats to stay at your house. And you should take into consideration the sad reality that outdoor cats tend to wreak havoc on the local bird population. But still, it could help!
If you've made it this far, you deserve a reward. Take a listen to Ticks by Brad Paisley. And good luck!