One of the best parts of spring is getting outside into the fresh air. Natural sunlight and air are some of the best things for your mental and physical health, including your immune system. The impact can be so profound that many countries have terms for it. In Sweden its called friluftsliv (pronounced free-loofts-liv). The Japanese have long studied the benefits of forest bathing.
Letting the earth, sun and wind do their thing is clearly something humans need. Sadly it is not without risk. Specifically, that’s one of the primary ways people contract Lyme Disease, and infection can be a chronic, debilitating, mysterious illness that affects 300,000-500,000 new people each year. Lyme is caused by a tick bite carrying the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi specifically, though ticks carry multiple diseases including other bacteria like Bartonella, parasites like Babesia, and viruses like Powassan.
But, for those of us who have been touched by the devastating effects of an infection like Lyme Disease, the question every spring is the same: how do we best protect ourselves and our loved ones from picking up a tick while still being able to enjoy all of the benefits of nature?
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as the saying goes, so to kick off Lyme Awareness Month, let’s start with how to avoid Lyme Disease altogether.
Dress The Part
First: Pre-treating your outdoor clothes with permethrin (found at any sporting goods store) is a cost-effective way to help prevent tick and other insect bites. The trick here is to spray your clothes in a very well-ventilated area (think outside on a clothesline) as concentrated permethrin can be neurotoxic. Once a small amount is absorbed into the fabric, you’ll have a strong layer of safe protection.
Spray down everything (including your socks and hats and shoes) until damp and then let air dry. Once the permethrin is dry, it will last about 6 washes and forms a safe and effective barrier on your clothes.
Second: this is my favorite part where I get to instill an incredible sense of fashion for your next hike: tuck your pants into your socks. Seriously. This is not only stylish, but it’s also absolutely essential. You can pick up ticks on your shoes, and they then crawl up until they reach flesh. It has the added benefit of embarrassing your kids and making hipsters think twice about their own fashion choices.
If your socks are tucked into your pants, ticks will have a long, long way to climb before they get anywhere important. By then they will hopefully fall off.
Third: Finding a tick can be tricky. Consider wearing light-colored clothes so you can see the ticks and remove them. If you have long hair, make sure to pull back. (Better yet, wear a permethrin-treated hat). After being out in the great outdoors, take your clothes off. You can throw them into the dryer to help kill off any ticks or just throw them in the wash.
Fourth: To protect your skin, I recommend using non-toxic sprays like picaridin Ranger Ready (rangerready.com) sprays or deet-free Repel with lemon-eucalyptus essential oils (repel.com). Make sure to reapply while you're out and about.
Finally: Do a thorough tick check when you get home. Look on arms and legs, and also behind/in your ears, under your arms, and in the groin where they like to hide. (You might need to recruit a friend for this). And don’t forget to protect and check your furry friends as well. There are multiple options to protect your pets – please talk to your vet for more details.
Protect Your Home:
You can also protect your yard. You can purchase Tick Tubes (ticktubes.com) or make your own. These are toilet paper tubes stuffed with permethrin-sprayed cotton spread across your yard. Mice take the cotton balls to help make their nest, covering the mice in permethrin. This doesn’t hurt the mice but will kill any ticks on the mice and help reduce the number of ticks you will be exposed to. Be mindful to place the tubes in places where your dogs or cats can’t reach them. I typically do this to my yard every spring and fall and have seen reductions in the number of ticks. Additionally, the CDC has some useful advice for helping create a tick-less yard.
For more information and a deeper dive at preventing Lyme, please check out my fellow ILADS Board member Alexis Chesney’s book on the topic.
Being outside is one of the best things you can do for yourself; whether it is to improve your physical health, clear your mind, or boost your immune system. Taking these measures will help ensure that you are protected from insects while continuing to enjoy some beautiful summer weather. So get protected and get outside!!
Dr. Casey Kelley