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Gardening and Lyme disease

Q: My area is highly populated with deer ticks. What are the symptoms of Lyme disease, and how can I protect myself from contracting it while gardening?

Joel Kelleher, Cheshire, CT

A: David Weld, executive director of the  American Lyme Disease Foundation , replies: Lyme disease is a bacterial infection transmitted to unsuspecting humans by infected ticks. It’s difficult to diagnose because its symptoms—skin lesions, heart palpitations, joint swelling, and paralysis of the muscles on one or both sides of the face—mimic those of other illnesses, and laboratory tests used to diagnose it are often unreliable. The characteristic sign of Lyme disease is a “bull’s-eye” rash seen in 50 to 80 percent of cases which starts as a small, red area and expands over several days to develop a clear area in the center. Flu-like symptoms may accompany this rash.

Nearly 100,000 cases of Lyme disease have been reported since 1982 in the United States alone, and it affects all age groups. The risk of contracting the disease runs higher in woody and low-brush areas where outdoor activities such as gardening, hunting, golfing, and backpacking are popular. While cases have been reported in 48 states, gardeners located in the Northeast, the upper Midwest, and northern California into Oregon should take special care as cases in these areas have reached epidemic proportions. Also, a similar Lyme-like disease, reportedly transmitted by the Lone Star tick, is now found in the South and Midwest.

Simple precautions to reduce the risk of contracting Lyme disease include avoiding tick-infested areas and wearing protective clothing while outdoors. Pants should be tucked into socks, and shirts into pants. Most cases are contracted while the ticks are in their nymphal stage, primarily during spring and summer, when, unfortunately, the weather is hot and long clothing is not comfortable. In residential areas, pinhead-sized nymphs take refuge in lawns and perch themselves in shrubs waiting to latch onto a passing deer.

Other preventive measures include checking your unclothed body for ticks in front of a full-length mirror. This may sound drastic, but if you live in a tick-prone area, it’s a worthwhile precaution. These ticks are so small that only thorough investigation will reveal them. An insect repellent containing DEET can be sprayed on your clothing and applied to exposed skin such as your hands and arms, but not on your face. However, use DEET repellent with caution—not in high concentrations, and never on children. Permethrin-based insect repellents may also be used on clothing, but not on bare skin. As always, follow label directions when using insect repellents.

From Fine Gardening 63, pp. 16