The morning I woke up with a big red bull’s eye spreading across my stomach, all I could think of was: Lyme Disease. I barely finished getting dressed before I rushed to the nearest urgent care facility. The doctor on duty only had to take one look before he pulled out his pad and wrote me a prescription for antibiotics.
“No blood test?” I asked. “Nope!” he said definitively. “When it comes to possibly contracting Lyme disease, we act first and test later!”
I appreciated his no-nonsense attitude. Clearly I’d been bitten by a tick, but it was nowhere on my body. I was lucky I had the bull’s eye rash. If not, I could have developed the disease, a debilitating malady that might at first feel like the flu, but eventually lead to heart palpitations, shooting pains, severe headaches and neck stiffness, pain and swelling in large joints and, in the most severe cases, death.
Now, I take no chances. When I work in my yard, I wear long sleeves, long pants, knee-high rubber boots, a hat, and gloves. I shake off my clothes before I go in the house, and when I shower, I thoroughly check my body for the little buggers. So far so good. But the season is early. And so I’ll stay on alert.
My precautions are warranted, says Mary Beth Pfeiffer, a reporter based in upstate New York who has just written Lyme: The First Epidemic of Climate Change. Ticks, like mosquitoes, thrive in warmer climates. That means there are more of them proliferating as the planet heats up, and consequently more of them biting more people. Plus, higher temperatures in more northern latitudes increase the range of these pests. The longer tick season is, the more likely it is that people will be exposed.
Another factor Pfeiffer points out in her engrossing book is that migrating birds become loaded with ticks when they overwinter in the tropics. As they fly north to their breeding grounds, they drop ticks along the way. If it’s not cold enough to kill them, their populations will balloon. That’s why, for example, a friend who lives surrounded by concrete in downtown Washington, D.C. was able to find a tick hanging out in the petunias on her patio. That, and the fact that mice and deer carry ticks far and wide. There is almost no limit to the number of ticks mice and deer can convey.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says that illnesses from ticks, as well as mosquitoes, more than tripled in the U.S. from 2004 to 2016. In 2016 alone, the number of Lyme disease incidents reported for the U.S. was 36,429. Unfortunately, it’s only going to get worse. Climate change is what the British medical journal the Lancet calls a “threat multiplier.” It substantially increases the risks that diseases will occur. Ticks spread Lyme disease; mosquitoes can infect people with the West Nile Virus and Zika.
Pfeiffer says the best way to protect yourself is to do what I do: cover up, then thoroughly check for ticks when you come in from the outdoors. Do the same for kids, given how susceptible they are to Lyme. The hardest parts of her book to read are those that describe children who died because their Lyme disease was diagnosed too late to be successfully treated.
“I mourn the fact that this disease and the threat of ticks have redefined childhood,” she says. “Romping through tall grasses, brushing up against weeds, have become things that are fraught with danger” because ticks are now almost everywhere. Still, Pfeiffer says, “It doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy nature. It means parents need to be super vigilant and know what risks are out there. You want kids to continue to play outside. But you need to treat tick prevention the way you treat sun burn. You teach kids to put sunscreen on before they go out; teach them to look for ticks when they come in.”
Pfeiffer also recommends spraying sneakers and socks with permethrin, a synthetic derivative of a compound found in chrysanthemum flowers that is a known tick repellent and killer.
- When walking in a forest, stay in the middle of the path to avoid brushing up against tick-bearing plants along the side.
- Dry clothes on high heat for 15 minutes, which will kill any ticks that are present.
- Sunny open spaces discourage ticks because they dry out quickly in the sun. Get rid of moist leaf litter. Don’t plant Japanese bayberry bushes or pachysandra because ticks love them.
- Treat dogs and cats with flea and tick medicine, and comb pets carefully when they come in from the outdoors.