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Lyme Disease and Natural Tick Repellents

I stood there in front of the mirror, in my little bedroom in Maine, jaw to the floor, staring at the four-inch-wide, red, raised bullseye rash on my side, and all I could think was Lyme disease. I suspected Lyme the second I saw it, but I kept zeroing in on the word disease. It had terrifying connotations, conjuring up images of dirtiness, of defectiveness, of sickness, of the end of my health as I knew it. The word disease came attached with so much stigma in my mind that I refrained from sharing the experience for three years. This target on my body made me ask, "Why me?" For a long time, I couldn't find an answer. But now that I've had friends and family struggle with it, I have realized I'm not alone and the importance of spreading awareness.

My rash appeared over the course of 48 hours and stuck around for 2 weeks. I hadn't noticed I had been bitten, as there was no tick in sight. Over the course of the next few weeks, even light touch brought searing pain. Forget sleep. Every time I rolled onto my right side, I'd wake up—up to 5 times per night. I was also concurrently trying to fight Epstein Barr Virus, and the combination of these two infections resulted in the worst mental fog of my life.

My combined symptoms included:

  • fatigue, low energy - sleeping ~15 hours a night

  • reduced appetite

  • intense, phlegmy coughing / congestion in the morning

  • waking up multiple times at night

  • sweating despite minimal blankets / clothes / fan

  • extremely deep, dark orange urine

  • swollen lymph nodes

  • headaches

  • joint pain

  • muscle weakness

  • general inability to focus

July 6, 2016

Thankfully, after a 3-week course of doxycycline and 2-3 months of feeling "not myself," I eventually made full recovery, which deepened my sense of gratitude for future moments of clarity. I was lucky that my symptoms were unambiguous and that I caught it early, grateful a simple treatment option existed when I needed it.

Prevalence and Incidence of Lyme Disease

Little did I know, Maine has one of the highest Lyme disease rates in the country. According to the CDC, there are an estimated 329,000 new cases in the US each year, but several scientists believe it is severely underreported and actually as high as 1 million cases a year (Nelson, 2015 & Stricker, 2014). With increasing average temperatures the past several years, black-legged deer ticks are on the rise, and Lyme disease rates are climbing.

According to CDC data, most cases were reported in NY, PA, and NJ. Another interactive map shows where Lyme disease is most prevalent using the underreported CDC data. Overall, we still see trends towards increasing Lyme incidence and highest prevalence in the northeast.

How is Lyme disease transmitted?

Lyme disease, or borreliosis, is transmitted by at least 21 of 52 known species of Borrelia, a spiral-shaped spirochete bacteria. Borrelia burgdorferi and B. mayonii (a newly discovered species in the Midwest) are known to cause Lyme disease in the US, while B. afzelii and B. garinii are found in Europe and Asia (Pritt, 2016). Rodents, birds, and deer are all competent vectors for these bacteria. Animals are bitten by infected ticks, which can then cause future ticks that bite that animal to become infected. This is how Lyme disease spreads.

Scanning electron micrograph of Borrelia burgdorferi, which is about 0.3 μm wide and 5-20 μm in length.

Ticks undergo three major stages in their life cycle: larva, nymphs, and adults. Nymphs are tiny and hard to detect, and they are most active from May to August. Adult ticks are most active from October to May.

Why is Lyme disease most prevalent in the northeast?

According to Vector Disease Control International, there are three major reasons for the increasing rates of Lyme disease in New England and Mid-Atlantic states:

  1. Milder winters, longer falls, and warmer springs contribute to longer seasonal activity of deer ticks. This has enabled ticks to expand their habitat range.

  2. The northeast has seen an overpopulation of white-tailed deer in recent years.

  3. Humans increase their outdoor activity during warmer months, increasing exposure to ticks.

If the south is warmer, why are Lyme disease rates lower there?

According to the US Geological Survey, low humidity and high temperature is a deadly combination for ticks. Ticks can survive high temperature and high humidity by burrowing in the forest bed, where they can keep cool. This is what they tend to do in the south, where it's generally warmer. As a result, they're less likely to encounter humans.