Beware the tall grass: Tips for Lyme time

For the Gazette
Published: 6/3/2019 3:31:39 PM

A few decades ago, high in the Italian Alps, a five-thousand-year-old mummy was found.  Offered up from a melting glacier and discovered by unsuspecting hikers, Otzi the Iceman was remarkably preserved, frozen as he was in the snow for millennia. Carbon dated and forensically evaluated, he produced some interesting finds. One of them was evidence of the bacterium that causes Lyme disease, Borrelia burgdorferi, which has so far been documented in eighty countries.

The recent surge in Lyme cases has been attributed to the warmer weather conditions of climate change (the very same melt that uncovered Otzi from his snowy grave) and to urban sprawl’s impingement on the wooded areas that support natural predators who compete with tick-carrying critters.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has determined that Lyme disease is an epidemic in the Northeast, and estimates that nationwide 300,000 people are newly diagnosed with Lyme each year, but many experts think that the incidence is far greater.

Lyme disease can manifest as almost any medical condition. It can affect the nervous system, muscles and joints, the heart, and virtually any organ system. Lyme disease is often mistaken for chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, arthritis, dementia, Parkinsons’s, rheumatoid arthritis, M.S.and other diseases. Confusion about the diagnosis and conflicting opinions among health care providers often allows the disease to progress unchecked.

Lyme disease directly impairs the functioning of the immune system, making the individual more prone to other infections and less capable of fighting off Lyme, but it can also make the immune system over-react, manifesting as allergy, autoimmune illness, thyroid disease and other metabolic conditions.

The International Lyme and Associated Disease Society (ILADS) is a group of scientists devoted to the study and treatment of Lyme. They acknowledge that the conventional testing for tick-borne illness is not reliable, leaving possibly millions of untreated people in this country who have the condition but have not been diagnosed. There are several laboratories in the U.S. that are considered reliable by Lyme experts, but in most cases, only Medicare will pay for these tests, which can cost up to $1300. Information about where to test can be found at or at Northampton’s Lyme Disease resource center,

In the Northeastern United States, the deer tick is responsible for transmitting most cases of Lyme disease. Ticks don’t carry Lyme when they hatch. Their first blood meal is usually on an infected mouse. Ticks don’t feed on deer until later in their life cycle. When a tick bites a human, its saliva not only transmits pathogens but also suppresses our immune system’s reaction to it.

The belief that a tick has to be attached for a day or two in order to spread disease is obsolete. Some researchers think that there is no minimum attachment time for disease to take hold. Complicating this further, many people who have Lyme disease have no recollection of being bitten by a tick. This could be explained by the fact that most cases of Lyme are transmitted by the immature nymph, which is the size of a pinhead and often cannot be felt or seen on the skin.

Ticks can be found living in the grassy and wooded areas where their favorite mammal meals live. Nymphs prefer the moisture of rotting leaves and wet woodpiles; adults ticks live at the tops of grasses and bushes as they wait for their next blood meal to come along.

You can keep tick populations down by clearing your yard of tall grass. Tick tubes — cardboard cylinders stuffed with cotton and natural permethrin — scattered every 15 feet at the border of your backyard can also reduce the tick population.

When you are in tick territory, wear light-colored long sleeves and pants that protect skin and highlight the tick. Clothing can be sprayed with natural permethrin or purchased pre-treated. Most outdoor equipment stores carry these products.

Spray yourself, your clothing and shoes with insect repellent or essential oil mixtures. A diet with plenty of garlic is thought to be a deterrent to ticks and other insects. Herbalist Stephen Buhner also has a tick repellent recipe in his book, “Healing Lyme.”

When you are outdoors, check yourself and your animals often. When you come indoors, you can run your clothes in a hot clothes dryer for 10 minutes and take a hot shower to remove any would-be feeding ticks. Check hidden places like the armpits, groin, back of knees, belly button and scalp.

Consult with your pediatrician before using any repellant on an infant.

Spend some extra bonding time with your pets each day and meticulously check them for ticks. Using herbal sprays on dogs and feeding them garlic can be effective tick repelling strategies. Ask your veterinarian about what would work best for your pet.

When you remove a tick, be gentle! Rough handling of a tick can increase the risk of transmission of disease. Use very sharp tweezers with a needle tip and grab the tick as close to the skin as possible. Lift up from the skin and hold firmly until the tick releases. This could take anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. Try not to twist or force the tick, yank it out abruptly or use salves, oils or heat.  If you use a commercial tick removal device such as a tick spoon or key, follow the manufacturer’s directions. 

After removing the tick, disinfect the bite area and your hands. You can keep the tick in a labeled plastic bag or glass jar for future testing. 

The University of Massachusetts Department of Microbiology will test the tick for a variety of illnesses. Contact them at their website, Normally, the test costs between $50 to $200, with a turnaround time of 3 business days, but some towns have agreements with the lab which could make the testing as inexpensive as $15. Their website will give you instructions. 

ILADS recommends a 20-day course of doxycycline after a tick bite. A one-time dose of doxycycline is no longer thought to be prophylactic for contracting Lyme. There are also many effective alternative treatments for Lyme. The best defense to contracting a tick-borne illness may simply be having a healthy immune system. Exercise, eat well, sleep well and minimize stress.

■Most people who contract Lyme disease do not get a bull’s eye rash

■The symptoms usually include fever, fatigue and headache but can appear as almost any condition.

■Lyme is easiest to treat in the early stages.  If left untreated, it can spread to numerous organ systems and be more challenging to treat.

■Helpful self- survey symptom checklists are available at or Dr. Richard Horowitz’ Lyme questionnaire which can easily be found online.

■Lyme disease, for the purposes of this article, also refers to the co-infections that can be transmitted in a tick bite, including Babesia and Bartonella.

Bryna Greenspan, MS, RD, PA-C, is a physician assistant at Northampton Integrative Medicine, a registered dietitian and an exercise physiologist. Her website is




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