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Ticks: rumors and murmurs

Sipping green tea and thinking how very interesting it is to be a mother of young ones in today’s America. Naturally from here, I could lead this conversation just about anywhere, but today’s circuit of fascination: Lyme’s disease.

If you grew up around ticks, the idea of checking your children for ticks is quite standard, if not a traditional summer activity. But whether you grew up around them or not, the fact is that today’s parents are facing an outdoors full of ticks with epic levels of Lyme infection.

Lyme is one of those things I’ve started bringing up around other moms, casual-suggestively, to learn if I’m missing something. At a book club, sitting around a long table in a lush backyard, I eagerly leaned in as the woman across from me cataloged all the steps she’d gone through after finding three ticks on her daughter. -But what about sending it to one of the websites? I asked. -Practitioners don’t think those are reliable. False positives. False negatives. -But you can’t prescribe doxy…I murmured. -Our pediatrician is prescribing doxycycline.

This was news to me. I’d been told no pediatricians were prescribing doxycycline to children. Amoxicillin only, though it had no recorded success with Lyme. Her doctor’s office was less than a mile away from mine. And yet, different approaches were happening between the two places. to childrenin ways that would affect them for the rest of their lives.

Of course there’s a reason this is on my mind. I found an engorged tick on one of my children that had been on her for three days. Not having peeked behind her ear for those three days was a one weekend slip-up, with the potential of the worst consequences. I pulled it off perfectly, sent it to perfectly (although, if you are in this situation, I highly recommend paying extra for it to get there as fast as possible), consulted my pediatrician and waited anxiously perfectly…and received my text message that said the tick did not have one of nine diseases it could have had. It did have one, but it was not one that is considered dangerous in our area (borrelia mayonii). My city pediatrician was surprised I had found this website and sent the tick off quickly. The only reason I had done so was because a friend from Martha’s Vineyard told me too, because where she vacationed this was considered standard procedure. Even though just a few weeks later I was told that these private-enterprise-tick dissection labs are not considered reliable, I am still really glad I sent it. If I still had seen a rash on my child, I would have asked for a Doxy prescription. But those results, paired with no rash, no fatigue, muscle aches, and no fever, gave me confidence to set this worry aside.

“On the West Coast, when it comes to natural disasters, they have earthquakes. The heartland has tornadoes. The South has hurricanes. Here in the Northeast, our natural disaster is Lyme disease,” said Kevin Esvelt, who specializes in a field called evolutionary and ecological engineering at MIT Media Lab.” –CNN 

(except, not quite so regional as that, since Lyme infected ticks are rapidly spreading in the Midwest as well.)

For those who study Lyme disease and see patients with Lyme, signs seem to indicate that there is no pinning this malicious insidious disease down. Maybe you’ll get a rash. Maybe you’ll have a fever. Maybe you’ll see the tick. Maybe you won’t. Maybe it will test positive or negative at or something similar. Doxycycline is the only known working antibiotic for Lyme. Doxycycline is not recommended to be prescribed to children as it is known to affect bone growth and stains their teeth. However, it is being prescribed because practitioners are now feeling that it is better than having the Lyme go untreated.

And a separate branch of this discussion begins right there: the long untreated cases of Lyme that were ignored or misdiagnosed for years. This branch of the conversation is centering around a lonely and grim theory: Is Lyme disease a Feminist issue? Take One, and take Two.

Researchers and insurers have often insisted not only on positive test results but also on the classic signs of early Lyme infection, such as the distinctive bull’s-eye rash and swollen knee joints, even though many people infected with the spirochete bacterium do not present such signs. Some of the symptoms of “chronic Lyme”—headaches, exhaustion, and cognitive dysfunction—have been dismissed as too vague or too similar to those of other conditions to be accorded diagnostic weight. -The New Yorker (see One above)

It feels overwhelmingly like the general knowledge database is broken here. It feels like it is totally on us to know everything we can.

This is when a light blue filter slides into my mind and I begin to see filmy images of the future, Minority Report style….what if playing in the woods soon looks like children scampering around in permethrin lightweight suits? What if we never get a vaccine and instead genetically alter mice, deer, embryos, whatever we can to introduce inoculation? What if the equivalent of giant weekly bug bombs becomes standard treatment for anything out-of-doors? What if tick immune robot cats are the new housecats?

Then I switch back to my admittedly healthy and yellow filter life in happy Massachusetts. I believe children can still play outside. I don’t believe we have to resort to toxic chemicals on our lawns. I believe it’s still safe to have indoor-outdoor pets. I believe we can catch this disease in the act of infection, and we can treat it. But, I believe we should be talking about it.

In this spirit, I want to mention a few homegrown prevention approaches I’ve encountered recently:

  1. Cistus Tea: made from leaves grown in Eastern Europe, rumored to successfully make human and animal drinkers repellent to ticks.
  2. Elevation: No rumors here. There are fewer ticks at elevations over 1000 ft.
  3. Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Soap: landscapers claim that washing in Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap makes them unappealing to ticks as they hike through the bushes, trimming back overgrowth in yards up and down the east coast. A refreshing soap and a bug repellent? I’ll take it.
  4. Animals: guinea hens (but dang, are they loud!), chickens and possums are all rumored to eat up local tick from your grounds. Whether maintaining these animals as ground control is worth it, is up to you!
  5. Cedar oil: a known effective natural deterrent for household pets, safe around children and pregnant women.
  6. Nightly tick checks for the entire household. Tried and true through the generations.
  7. Insert your tip here! What have you learned?

To close, a link to this excellent recent summary of the options with bug spray, including the general sense that DEET is not so bad after all.

Obvious disclaimers….I am not a doctor, scientist, or professional researcher. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The advice & statements on this blog have not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration. Any information on this blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.




  • Rachel Ann

    Oh, the ticks! We do daily checks too. Our pediatrician really calmed my fears this spring by reminding me that the consistency of daily checks is the key. If you miss a nymph one day, it will be enforced enough by the next day that you will notice AND that will still be before the 24-hour attached infection window. We also use geranium essential oil in our homemade bug spray and do a tick brush off and check after every hike and change our children’s clothes before they get in the car seat. I had a friend whose daughter was bitten by one days later lingering on a car seat (another reason for daily checks). And UMass Amherst will check the ticks for $50 and it contributes to their scientific data. Results in a few days.

  • Elizabeth

    We grew up playing in the north woods of Wisconsin during those endless summer days. After we came in from playing all of us would head to the bathroom and do a head to toe dunk in the bath water my mom had drawn for as long as we could hold our breaths to clear out any ticks we may have carried in. Lymes and other tick-born diseases were not quite as talked about as they are now but this was standard practice for most of the families that lived there.

    Both my father-in-law and my dad have had tick-born diseases. My dad did not have Lymes – he ended up with a “mystery neurological disorder” that was only properly identified as two of the more rare tick-born diseases after a visit to Mayo Clinic and it has taken nearly five years to recover – his life completely changed as a result since he could no longer do many of the things he used to enjoy like riding his motorcycle but he has a good, good doctor who is more a detective than doctor and is recovering well.

    My father-in-law had a simple case of Lymes (if there is such thing) and went on the standard Doxy and everything was right as rain afterwards but it was still weeks of recovery.

    Because of these experiences and the profound impact they’ve had on our family member’s lives, we are not adverse to chemical solutions to dealing with Ticks – the risks of tick-born diseases far, far outweigh the risks of using a regular ol’ off woods deet filled bug spray. We also use advantix with our two dogs and indoor/outdoor cat, and when I garden or head into the woods I wear long pants tucked into high gardening boots (not hunters, but that shape and size), a lightweight long sleeved shirt, and spray my clothes with bug spray, especially around the tops of my gardening boots, the collar of my shirt, and where my gardening gloves meet my wrist.

  • Monica

    Wow. Growing up in the Midwest, I was used to the nightly tick checks but barely ever heard murmurs of Lyme. Now living on the west coast, it still has not been my reality, but your writing is very eye opening and made it so real. I enjoy your takes on hard parenting subjects.

  • Ellen

    Growing up in upstate New York, ticks and Lyme were definitely part of our life. But I’ve often wondered about whether they’re somehow attracted to some people more than others? I have a sister who always catches a tick when she’s out in nature, and a couple of nieces and nephews as well. ALWAYS. But even though I spent all of my childhood playing outside in our expansive country yard and the woods nearby, I have never found a tick on myself. Do I have some sort of immunity? I always get bitten by mosquitos though.

  • Margaret

    I live in Upstate NY and we talk/worry about Lyme constantly too. My kiddos are little so there’s less surface area to examine and they are often running around naked so it’s easy to frequently check, but I’m already worrying about when they are older and don’t want their mother up in their grill looking for ticks. One thing I learned this past winter is that even in the colder weather we have to be on guard…ticks are active when it’s over 45 degrees or so. We were brushing off ticks in February this year!

  • Taylor

    I always appreciate the heart behind your interests and concerns, Rachel. Thank you for sharing. We moved from Chicago to Michigan and daily tick checks have definitely become a new norm!

  • Rachel

    I’m hesitant to even recommend this because her being a housewife almost immediately discredits her, but I though Yolanda Foster’s book “Beleive Me” was eye-opening in what adults do to cure themselves of chronic Lyme and the resistance they meet along the way.

    • Rachel

      Clarification – I met her being a Bravo-Leb real housewife may discredit her to some people, not a general comment about housewives! Ugh, I really botched that, sorry!

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