Don’t let anyone tell you that Lyme Disease is harmless. It definitely isn’t – it almost killed me.
I am a relatively healthy guy with no chronic disease. Three years ago in May, I was experiencing bouts of fatigue and low grade fevers off and on. At first I thought, it’s probably allergies, because that’s the one thing that gets me every spring. But the fatigue got worse and worse and sometimes I simply had to take a nap midday (which very unlike me). As this occurred in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic, doctors kept testing me for Covid which always came back negative. My symptoms remained unexplained, even though I received multiple blood tests, including for the most common form of Lyme Disease (there are at least 16 strains of Lyme Disease bacterium, according to Penn State University). But nothing was our of normal range.
A sudden change in symptoms was alarming
After about 4 weeks of this, my symptoms suddenly changed. I started experiencing heart palpitations and my right ankle swelled up from edema. Plus, the skin on my hands and the bottom of my feet was peeling (like a moulting lizard!!). My knees were red but not swollen, as were my elbows and wrists. But I did not have that tell-tale sign of Lyme Disease – the bullseye rash.
I got worse fast that day, became unable to stand because I was so weak, and was in the ER that evening. There, I went into heart failure. At the time, I thought it might be the end of me.
An uncommon strain of Lyme Disease was the culprit
After 24 hours, and multiple blood tests and scans, there was still no diagnosis and my heart rhythm was dangerously out of whack. One blood test showed that my thyroid levels were very high, indicating some kind of infection. Yet everything tested for was negative.
The infectious disease doc had a hunch (as he described it) to test for a lesser known version of Lyme Disease. Bingo! My antibodies lit up. They dosed me with a heavy regimen of antibiotics and thyroid meds, and within 24 hours my heart rhythm improved and my blood chemistry started coming back in line. Fortunately, I have no heart damage or any other kind of lingering issues from my bout with Lyme Disease. Except for a panicky revulsion to ticks.
The question was and remains, how did I get Lyme Disease? It happened during the pandemic, when I was pretty much moving just between the house and garden. So the best guess is I picked one up in my garden. Or maybe one came in on the dog. Or maybe one was lingering in my garden shed, because mice like the shed too (ticks hitchhike on mice). Who knows? What I do know is that if I had taken precautions that spring I may have avoided a health crisis. For the record, I wasn’t in the woods when I was bitten – I live in a city with a small yard. Ticks are everywhere now.
How to protect yourself from tick bites and Lyme Disease
Not every tick carries Lyme Disease – I’ve been bitten by ticks before Lyme and after Lyme and was perfectly fine. But those are the only ones I spotted.
According to the CDC, the ticks that carry Lyme Disease are the blacklegged tick, aka the deer tick. Many of those that bite you are nymphs, which are the size of a poppy seed, so good luck spotting that on your body. You can be bitten anytime between spring and fall, but the tick typically has to be attached to your body for 36-48 hours before transmitting Lyme Disease. If you’re lucky enough to spot it and carefully remove it within 24 hours, you’re probably safe.
How to create a tick-safe yard and garden
Ticks hide everywhere, waiting for a mammal to pass. When you or an animal brushes up against them or gets close enough to them, they attach and stick their mouth parts under the skin and start harvesting blood. Nice, right? But ticks don’t like sunny or open areas. So here are a few ways to reduce your chances of ticks in the yard: (Source: CDC)
- If you have tall grasses or brush around your yard, mow it down. Short grass means fewer places for ticks to hide
- Ticks don’t migrate across open spaces on their own, so create a 3-foot wide barrier of wood chips or stones as borders between lawns and wooded areas and around patios or play areas.
- Keep the lawn mowed to about 3 inches. Ticks love tall grass.
- Create open, sunny areas with low mown grass for kids to play in.
- Keep shrubs trimmed near patios and walkways.
- Remove plant species from your garden that deer typically sample – ticks travel on deer.
- Move wood piles to areas that are dry and stack it. This will discourage rodents that ticks live on.
- If you have junk or trash in the yard, remove it, as ticks will definitely inhabit it.
- Do not rely on pesticides alone to clear your property of ticks – they are unreliable and by their nature, temporary. Use the cultural controls listed above first, pesticides second.
How to protect yourself from tick bites
- Never leave the house (just kidding).
- When gardening, wear white or light-colored clothing so you can see any ticks that attach to it.
- Wear a long-sleeved shirt and long pants no matter how hot it is.
- Tuck pant legs inside socks or boots.
- Place your clothes in a hot drier right after you come inside. The heat from the dryer will kill any ticks, washing alone will not.
- When you go inside, check your body for ticks – check everywhere, especially where you have hair (know what I mean?).
- If you’re okay with using a tick repellant, choose one with 20%-30% DEET, 10% for children. Apply according to the instructions on the label.
- If you discover a tick on your body, DO NOT use heat or alcohol or your fingers to remove it. Using a fine-tipped tweezers, (and preferably a magnifying glass because you know.. small), grasp the mouthparts as close to the skin as possible. Pull the tick straight out. The mouthparts must be removed from the skin, as the tick won’t die just because you separated the body from the head (isn’t that great?).
Do ticks have any natural predators?
I wish I could tell you that creating a backyard where birds were plentiful would reduce your tick population. It may, but it also may not. Naturally, having a balanced ecosystem in your yard, no matter the size, helps to keep all pests in check. But there is not a singular animal who devours ticks and keeps the local population down. Birds eat some, snakes eat some, salamanders, frogs and spiders even eat some. But the key word is some. But there is a line of thinking that if you reduce the rodent population – the mice, chipmunks and other small mammals that ticks travel on – can reduce the number of ticks in your immediate area. So police areas where mice might nest and discourage deer from your property (without harming them), and you may see fewer ticks in your yard and garden.
How does a tick attach itself to you?
This PBS video does a fine job of telling you more than you ever wanted to know about ticks.