Strategies for the Prevention of Lyme disease and Other Tick-Borne Illness Part 1:Protect Your Home
Updated: Jun 6
There are a surprising number of things you can do to greatly reduce the chance of a tick bite to you or your loved ones. Since a recent survey in Connecticut showed about 50% of ticks sampled were infected with Lyme disease, this is advice well taken.
A Problem That Isn't Going Away, and Is Actually Getting Worse
Lyme disease has been known to be carried by ticks for many decades, specifically by Ixodes scapularis, the black-legged deer tick. But these ticks can carry many more pathogens and potential infections than just the organism responsible for Lyme disease. Back in 2004, a study from New Jersey found over 30% of ticks sampled carried Lyme disease as well as Bartonella species and just last year a sampling from Newtown, CT found the rate of sampled ticks infected with Lyme disease as high as 50%! 1,2 Yet surprisingly Bartonella is still often not tested for when a person is bitten by a black-legged deer tick. Other infectious bacteria and protozoans carried by ticks, like Anaplasma, Ehrlicia, and Babesia, are more commonly tested in people and pets. But this list is by no means inclusive of all the possible infectious microbes such a tick can carry when it bites a person. That list continues to get longer, and has come to include even Powassan virus, which has a transmission time in as little as 15 minutes.3,4
But the list of types of infectious organisms from a black-legged deer tick is not the only factor in our worsening scenario with these arachnids; "[p]opulations of blacklegged ticks have established and flourished in areas of North America previously thought to be devoid of this species".5 Ticks have been increasing in numbers as well as expanding their ranges. This is thought to be due, at least in part, to weather patterns and ecological factors. When the weather is warmer, spring starts earlier and people are outside more often, those conditions align to allow for more 'human-tick encounters'. Milder or wetter winters are also more favorable to ticks and there has definitely been a trend towards milder winters the last few decades. Indeed, the previous decade is the hottest in recorded history!6
The warming climate is partially responsible for the tick expansion, as less colder temperatures allow these populations to gain a foot-hold into regions which historically they would not have been able to otherwise tolerate. And this is not just the black-legged deer tick, it applies to other types of ticks as well. Why just last year, regions in Fairfield County, CT, reported established populations of two different kinds of ticks after having expanded their ranges, the Gulf Coast and Asian longhorn tick species.2
So given the environmental situation, it really is no surprise that incidence of tick-borne illness is on the rise. What is surprising is how ill-informed many physicians remain on the topic! If physicians across the country continue to only consider Lyme disease data for what was REPORTED to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), they will see a comparatively low number of cases. However, if they consider alternatively how often these cases are being DIAGNOSED, they will see the magnitude of the problem is much bigger.7,8 The CDC themselves have posted on their website
that the number of DIAGNOSED cases of Lyme disease is more than ten times over and beyond the number of cases REPORTED to them, with the difference going from approxiamtely 30,000 cases to over 476,000 cases in 2019.9
Protect Your Home
In the wild, ticks are more abundant in fragmented patches of moist deciduous forests with varying amounts of shrub and low-lying vegetation. That translates into that ticks thrive in areas that are moist and with shade, such as leaf litter, and where yards border wooded areas or gardens. They also prefer woodpiles, stonewalls, sheds and other areas conducive for rodents, upon whom they feed.
Thus proactive landscape management can create an environment unattractive to primary tick hosts like mice or deer, as well as ticks themselves. Some actions to consider include:
Keep grass mowed
Remove leaf litter, brush, and weeds at the edge of the lawn
Restrict use of groundcover, such as pachysandra in areas frequented by family and roaming pets
Remove brush and leaves around stonewalls and wood piles
Creation of a 3ft perimeter of mulch, woodchips, stone or other potentially dry groundcover to create an initial perimeter to discourage ticks from migrating from woodlands
Move children's swing sets and sand boxes away from the woodland edge and place them on a wood chip or mulch type foundation **image credits
Create wide paths to walk on with borders of wood chips or stone if using property that traverses through woodlands
Discourage rodent activity by restricting small openings around the home
Remove or move bird feeders to perimeter.
Use deer fencing, use plants that repel deer
An entire handbook was written on this topic and is available for free pdf download, thanks to the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. See references below for details.
What's more, is that homeowners can actually enlist rodents in their struggle against ticks! Unlike sprays or granules, 'tick tubes' exclusively target ticks on mice. These tubes work with nature and won’t harm pets or people using the yard. They’re really nothing more than cardboard tubes that have been stuffed with permethrin-coated cotton. Permethrin is a man-made synthetic insecticide whose chemistry is based on natural pyrethrum compounds that are derived from the flowers of the chrysanthemum plant. By placing the permethrin onto a wad of cotton or dryer lint into a tube and placing it in a location where mice frequent, the hope is that mice will find the cotton, and carry it back to their nests to use as bedding material, thereby killing any ticks that they’re hosting. It’s a simple, but effective way to use the ticks' behavior against themselves. 'Tick tubes' can be bought commercially and are shown to reduce the incidence of ticks and tick-bites at a location.11, 12
Implementing well thought-out and sustainable strategies for curbing tick populations at the home-front will also further protect your home from environmental toxins used in pesticide applications. For example, 'dioxins' is a term commonly used for a group of compounds that have a similar chemical structure and are produced as byproducts in the making of pesticides, herbicides, paper bleaching and waste burning. This family of chemicals has come to include polychlorinated dibenzo-para-dioxins (PCDDs), polychlorinated dibenzo-furans (PCDFs), certain dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and more. These chemicals are known as "persistent organic pollutants" (POPs) because they have a much longer half-life than so many other compounds. Dioxins are of concern because of their highly toxic potential. Experiments have shown they affect a number of organs and systems. Once dioxins enter the body, they last a long time because of their chemical stability and their ability to be absorbed by fat tissue, where they are then stored in the body. Their half-life in the body is estimated to be 7 to 11 years.13 And guess what? "Polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzo-furans (PCDD/Fs) may be formed during the manufacture of chlorinated pesticides, and can remain in the products as impurities ... (and in a study where) 27 pesticide formulations were analyzed for PCDD/Fs(,) PCDD/F impurities were present in all samples ...".14
While reducing the suitability of tick habitat around the home is an important set of precautions to take, we should also consider steps taken personally when a someone is outdoors and immediately after. That will be the subject of our next blog.
Adelson, Martin E et al. “Prevalence of Borrelia burgdorferi, Bartonella spp., Babesia microti, and Anaplasma phagocytophila in Ixodes scapularis ticks collected in Northern New Jersey.” Journal of clinical microbiology vol. 42,6 (2004): 2799-801. doi:10.1128/JCM.42.6.2799-2801.2004.
Khatchikian CE, et al. Recent and rapid population growth and range expansion of the Lyme disease tick vector, Ixodes scapularis, in North America. Evolution. 2015 Jul;69(7):1678-89. doi: 10.1111/evo.12690. Epub 2015 Jul 6. PMID: 26149959; PMCID: PMC8514133.
* image credits: https://www.climatecentral.org/gallery/graphics/top-10-warmest-years-on-record. Acessed 05-29-22.
https://www.cdc.gov/lyme/datasurveillance/index.html. Accessed 05-28-22.
** image credits: Stafford, K. Tick management handbook : an integrated guide for homeowners, pest control operators, and public health officials for the prevention of tick-associated disease. The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. 2007.
Holt E, Weber R, Stevenson G, Gaus C. Polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurans (PCDD/Fs) impurities in pesticides: a neglected source of contemporary relevance. Environ Sci Technol. 2010 Jul 15;44(14):5409-15. doi: 10.1021/es903915k. PMID: 20560598.
The content and any recommendations in this article are for informational purposes only. They are not intended to replace the advice of the reader's own licensed healthcare professional or physician and are not intended to be taken as direct diagnostic or treatment directives. Any treatments described in this article may have known and unknown side effects and/or health hazards. Each reader is solely responsible for his or her own healthcare choices and decisions. The author advises the reader to discuss these ideas with a licensed naturopathic physician.