Lyme Disease, Deer Ticks and Campers

Written by Robert Oley, PE, MSPH, Public Health Consultant, www.boboley.com.

Summer camp is right around the corner, and that means there are lots of details to be taken care of before your children head off to camp.  One important detail that often escapes parents’ notice is providing their children with the necessary protection against tick bites, particularly deer ticks, during their stay at camp.  Deer ticks are cesspools of disease, and they put your children at risk for Lyme disease as well as other potentially debilitating diseases such as babesiosis, anaplasmosis, bartonella, tularemia and mycoplasma.

LITTLE BUG, BIG PROBLEMS

How can such a small bug cause such big problems for campers?  Ticks are parasites that survive by feeding on the blood of hosts such as mice, chipmunks, birds, squirrels, rabbits and deer.  Regrettably, they also feed on your children.  While deer ticks are active year round, their peak season of activity begins in May and runs through September.  During this time, the nymphal deer tick (about as small as a poppy seed) actively seeks a host, and its bite poses the greatest risk of infecting campers with Lyme disease and other tick-borne co-infections.

Deer ticks require a humid environment to survive and can be found anywhere their hosts live.  Thus they can be encountered in a variety of settings including lawns, playing fields, woodlands, along woodland trails, as well as in leaf litter and brush piles.  They can also be found near old stone walls, woodpiles, tree stumps and fallen logs, anywhere their hosts make their nests.  They have even been found on picnic tables and benches.  As alarming as it may sound, deer ticks are out there, just hiding in wait for your unsuspecting children. 

PERSONAL PROTECTION

When your children are at camp, it is strongly recommended that they wear tick repellent clothing.  Other than complete avoidance of tick-infested areas, this one protective measure will do more good to protect your children from tick bites than any other.  The clothing should be treated with permethrin, an insecticide which repels and kills ticks and which has been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as safe for use on clothing worn by children.  As an added benefit, this clothing will also repel mosquitoes and other bothersome insects.

In addition, wearing an EPA-approved insect repellent on exposed skin parts will provide added protection, but should be used in conjunction with tick repellent clothing.  The tick repellent you choose for your skin should say on the container that it repels ticks and for how long it does so.

PREVENTATIVE MEASURES

Some simple preventative measures, which are highly recommended for you and your children, include:

  1. Educate your children about ticks, including: the areas they as campers should try to avoid, the tick repellent clothes they should wear, and how to properly use tick repellents on exposed skin.  Educating them about ticks is well worth the effort and essential in keeping them safe.
  2. Find out whether the summer camps your children are attending are aware of the dangers posed by ticks and whether they have a tick management program in place to protect campers from ticks.  If they do not, it should be cause for concern.  As a matter of course, camps should also notify children’s parents immediately when an embedded tick is found on one of their campers, as prompt medical treatment may be advisable.
  3. When doing outside camping activities, your children should wear clothing (T-shirts, sweat shirts, shorts, pants, socks) that is treated with permethrin.  This is one of the easiest things to do, and it has big prevention payoffs.  You can treat your own children’s clothing (good for 6 washings) or purchase pre-treated clothing (good for 70 washings) with the proprietary Insect Shield label from suppliers such as: REI, LLBean, ExOfficio, Orvis, etc.
  4. If you do not choose to treat your children’s clothing with permethrin, you can send their clothes to be treated at the Insect Shield facility in North Carolina.  Clothing will come back looking the same as you sent it but with the permethrin protection bonded to the fabric and good for 70 or more washings.  Visit the Insect Shield website, www.insectshield.com, for directions on how this can be easily accomplished.
  5. Spray outdoor shoes (sneakers, sandals, hiking boots, etc.), athletic gear, tennis bags, back packs, camping gear, beach towels (anything that could end up on the ground outside) with permethrin to keep ticks away.  This protection will last for about 30 to 40 days when it will start to lose its effectiveness due to exposure to the elements.
  6. Make sure campers wear tick repellent on their exposed skin.  The repellent must say on the container that it repels ticks. You can buy insect repellents with synthetic chemicals such as IR3535, Picaridin, and DEET, all of which have been approved by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as effective against ticks.  If you prefer using organics, you can try essential oils like Lemon Eucalyptus Oil and Cedar Oil.  Most of these tick repellents will work for 4 to 6 hours, so they may need to be applied a couple of times per day depending on what outdoor camp activities are taking place.
  7. Teach children how to properly apply tick repellent.  If children are younger than 10 years old, you may want them to seek the help of camp counselors in applying it.
  8. If your children attend a day camp, keep their outside clothes outside your home, as ticks can be on clothing from outdoor activities.  When your children come home at the end of the camp day, put their clothes in a separate hamper in the mud room or garage if possible.  As soon as you can, put their clothes in the clothes dryer on high heat for 20 to 30 minutes.  The dry heat will effectively kill any ticks that may be on them.
  9. Educate your children on how to conduct body checks for ticks following outside activities, as well as at night before they go to bed.  Ticks like to attach around moist areas of the body, and can often be found between the toes, behind the knees, in the navel and groin areas, armpits, back of neck, skin creases, and hair.  Your children can never check themselves too often for ticks, as they can be very hard to find.

When children arrive at camp, you want them to be able to enjoy themselves.  By taking these personal protective and preventive measures for your children, you can ensure their camp experience is incredible.  Don’t be hasty; your children’s health may depend on it.  Take the time to follow through on these sensible recommendations.  Educate your children about ticks and tick-borne diseases so when they do get to camp, they will be fully prepared for the ticks, which will surely be lying in wait for them.