Tiny risks, big risks

I’m Shannon, and I am an Associate Producer on Mother Nature’s Child. You’ll hear my voice from time to time on the blog.

Mother Nature’s Child addresses the question of risk: what kinds of risks are healthy for children, what risks help teenagers mature into healthy adults, and what are the hidden risks of our technological age. When most people think about taking risk in nature, we might think of riding a wave, or scrambling up a rock wall, or doing a solo mountain climb. As to children’s risks in nature, we might think of bumped knees, falls from high places, and poison ivy.

Here in Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia, a very different risk is at the forefront, one often no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence: the deer tick. This critter, so easily overlooked, is the carrier for Lyme Disease. And when you live in Pennsylvania, you know Lyme Disease well, too well. Someone in your family has had it. You know someone who has been devastated by it. When Lyme Disease is straightforward, it is a nuisance that must be knocked out by a month of antibiotics. But when it is overlooked for too long, misdiagnosed, or just acting funny, it can literally wreak havoc on someone’s entire life, affecting balance, motor skills, mood and causing chronic joint pain. My friend’s mother was misdiagnosed with Lupus for years; turns out it was Lyme Disease, caught too late, and now she is practically an invalid, hardly able to walk and needing constant care. Another friend’s brother is an emaciated 136 pounds at 6 feet tall because repeated antibiotics for Lyme Disease has destroyed his digestive tract. He was once an active, outdoorsy twenty something, now he is weak, pale, bald, and spending most of his time trying to regain the health that he lost. There are many more stories. Too many.

So, how to balance this terrifying and real threat of Lyme Disease with the need for our children, and our selves, to be outside, especially as the weather beckons us out? We all do different things:

I have organically-minded friends who have sprayed their yard with insecticide after 4 cases of Lyme Disease in one season, in their family of 4.

Some use DEET, which is not advised for children.

Some put rose oil or geranium oil on their children.

Some wear long pants and long sleeves in 90+ degree weather. White is best for spotting ticks. (And utterly impractical for young children.)

Some have chickens or guinea hens as pets to roam their backyards and eat the ticks.

Some use Damminix tick tubes.

Some don’t go out in the woods, the grass, even the beach. The stress is just too much.

Lyme Disease makes neat play areas like swimming pools, wood-chipped playgrounds and paved basketball and tennis courts much more attractive, not to mention all those indoor play spaces.

In my family we do ‘tick checks’ every night, inspecting every nook and cranny on our children’s perfect little bodies for the insidious creatures who like to hide, who might make them sick for life. We also have chickens and tick tubes around the yard. The chickens are really cute, and they give us eggs.

We play outside regularly, and pluck off ticks regularly, and try not to worry. Only one of my three children has had Lyme Disease, and it was a straightforward case: fever, bulls-eye rash at the site of the bite. But when his knees ache, I wonder if it’s growing pains, or Lyme. It’s an insidious kind of worry, that low-grade stress that can get to me over time, and ask too many questions.

Is it global warming that has made the ticks flourish and spread? Is it that the US has stopped using terrible pesticides like DDT? It is the deer “overpopulation” due to destruction of their predators and habitat to build more homes for humans? Or is it fragmented forests creating a habitat for mice?

Really, the ticks are just being ticks, doing what ticks are supposed to do. Whatever the exact cause or causes, it’s human meddling with nature that has caused this rise in tick-borne diseases (yes, there are others).

Sometimes I think, “Well, ticks are a part of mother nature.” And they are, as much as we are. But it doesn’t make me feel much better. I just want my kids to grow up to be healthy. And being outside is a huge part of being healthy. What would life be like without the feeling of mud between my toes, smelling a flower deeply, or lying down in the grass and looking up at the clouds through the trees? What would my children’s lives be like without rambles in the woods, climbing trees, creek walking and chasing fireflies? I don’t want to know.

There will always be something that challenges us, big or small, and I think it’s how we meet the challenges, how we face risk, that really matters. I hope that’s the idea I pass on to my children, anyway.

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4 Responses to “Tiny risks, big risks”

  1. PA Native says:

    Nice post! Having grown up in Pennsylvania, I don’t remember as a child even being aware of Lyme. Perhaps it was just the time, or education, or perhaps it wasn’t such a nuisance back then. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Lyme!

  2. Worried Mama says:

    My daughter had a nymph tick on the back of her beautiful little neck. The reality hit in a big way. She has an Aunt who has battled with lyme and will never be quite the same. Her grandfather still questions if the constant pain he is in is really just age. (He has come up negative for lyme several times. Which, as we know, doesn’t mean anything.) I also worked for a woman who was fine until she came up paralyzed in a movie theater. She carted around IV antibiotics for I don’t know how long. I find myself battling with having to deal with this REAL and present danger and making sure that my sweet young thing isn’t paranoid about being in nature, rolling down the hill in the backyard and looking for pictures in the clouds.

    The tick wasn’t engorged enough to be tested so they assure me that she is fine. But I worry. I guess, in the end, I worry about so many risks with my little one. I can only hope that I manage my (our) worry well enough so that she can be the free spirit she should be.

  3. Amy Beam says:

    There is a very effective natural product that I recommend called Buzz Away Extreme. I order it from Amazon. In testing it out performed OFF! w/DEET. It’s important to point out that you can get ticks from anywhere that there are mammals, and this includes “neat play areas like swimming pools, wood-chipped playgrounds and paved basketball and tennis courts…not to mention all those indoor play spaces,” not just in deep woods and fields. The most important thing to do is to use repellent every couple of hours and to do regular tick checks. Deer are falsely maligned as the cause for Lyme’s disease, which is actually transmitted to ticks by a little white-footed mouse. A very promising localized remedy is to scatter biodegradable mouse-nesting materials that have been treated with an herbal pesticide. In testing it has proven to be very effective in killing the ticks (before they get off of the mice to transmit the disease). It would also be very wise to campaign against killing black rat snakes, which eat at least a mouse a week and pose no threat to humans. If you find a tick within a day (some say two) it hasn’t got a chance to transmit the disease. If you feel that you’ve been exposed but come up negative for the test you can still take a round of doxycycline to be sure to knock it out. Just remember, your risk of injury from Lyme’s disease is statistically much smaller than your risk of injury in a car…how concerned are you each time you take a drive around town vs. a trip into nature? As long as we buckle up, look each way, or use repellent and do tick-checks, we should be able to keep ourselves safe and do what we need to do! Happy trails!

  4. admin says:

    Thanks for the helpful suggestions, Amy. I will definitely check out Buzz Away. We have used Swyflotter with some success. And the stuff you’re talking about that targets the white-footed mouse is, I believe, the Damminix tick tubes, which we use around our yard. They, with chickens, have really improved our backyard habitat – or in other words, have made it really unfriendly to ticks. If it’s not Damminix, I’d love to hear the product name.
    I wonder about the statistics that you cite. Are those national? Because anecdotally in Eastern PA where Lyme is endemic, epidemic, practically, I would say that Lyme is way more common than car accidents. And that is one of the scarier things about Lyme. With a car accident, you know you’ve been in one. With Lyme, the damage can happen silently for years. My friend’s daughter, who wrote to me after reading this piece, is needing treatment for chronic Lyme; she’s seven years old. As I said in my piece, that doesn’t stop me or my friends (most of them, anyway) from going out in the woods and playing in our yards. We still believe that being outside and being with nature far outweighs the risks of Lyme. But in my opinion, being well educated about the realities of Lyme and other risks is a huge part of making peace (or war, if necessary) with them. I believe that staying positive with our young people is also really important, and keeping unnecessary fear out of their consciousness. Nature can be happily embraced, as long as we are real about the risks.

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