Prevent Lyme Disease with Showers and Fences

Infection can cause complications if not treat early, but research suggests you can prevent Lyme disease with some simple tactics.

August 30, 2009

Time in the tub seems to fend off Lyme ticks, according to new research.

In the Northeastern United States, the place where you're most likely to be bitten by a tick carrying Lyme disease is not in the woods, but in your own backyard. Fortunately, research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine suggests that some of the best ways to prevent Lyme disease are free and practical—good news for people who are leery of using chemical insect repellents like DEET or permethrin. While they are effective, chemical repellants pollute waterways and have been shown to cause behavioral problems in animal studies.


THE DETAILS: Yale researchers focused their study in 24 Connecticut communities where the disease is endemic, looking at ways personal protection, landscaping, and chemical controls may help prevent Lyme disease in a backyard setting. They interviewed 349 people with Lyme, and an equal number of healthy people, asking questions about insect-repellent use, performing tick checks, and even the residents’ yards.

The two personal-protection measures that helped ward off Lyme disease were performing tick checks within 36 hours of spending time in the yard, and showering or taking a bath within two hours of being in the yard. Contrary to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, wearing light-colored clothing, long pants, and tucking your pants into your socks did not seem protective, at least in a backyard setting. But the data did show that having any type of fencing around the yard lowered risk of contracting Lyme disease. The reason for that is unclear; possibly the fences keep tick-carrying deer out of yards, or keep people away from woody edges of their property, where ticks are more likely to be found. More research is needed before fencing is recommended to prevent Lyme disease, the study authors say.

WHAT IT MEANS: When caught early, Lyme is usually easily treated effectively with antibiotics. According to the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society, though, current blood tests are unreliable and miss many cases; if the disease is undertreated or untreated, the spirochete can move from organ to organ, causing a wide range of chronic Lyme symptoms that may require longer doses of antibiotics, they say. Preventing infection is the best way to sidestep these complications. Study author Neeta Connally, PhD, associate research scientist in epidemiology and public health at Yale School of Public Health, says the protective effect of a shower or bath was particularly interesting. "Most Lyme prevention campaigns focus on tick checks, which makes a lot of sense," she says. "But bathing is a thing that's not commonly recommended."

Here's how you can prevent ticks from infecting you with Lyme disease:

• Scan daily. You slash your risk of developing Lyme disease if you scan your body daily for ticks. Use a mirror or a partner to check hard-to-see places, and pay special attention to areas ticks like to hide—armpits, bra and panty lines, and the groin. And don't forget to keep your pet free of ticks naturally, too.

• Scrub-a-dub-dub. Connally says bath time presents a great opportunity for Lyme prevention because of these three things:

1. It's another chance to focus on your body and check for ticks.
2. You can wash off ticks that haven't attached yet.
3. You may take off clothing ticks were hanging onto.

• Know early symptoms. Only about half of people bitten by a tick develop a bull's-eye rash, and many people don’t recall being bitten at all. Some notice migrating rashes or red or black-and-blue splotches shortly after being bitten. Other early Lyme symptoms sometimes pop up a few days to a month after infection and include fatigue, fever, and chills. If the disease becomes more established in your body, it could cause cardiac and neurological problems. If you think you've been recently infected with Lyme, ask your doctor to perform blood tests, and if negative, have them repeated about six weeks later. If the results are still negative and you still suspect Lyme, you may want to see a doctor who specializes in treating Lyme aggressively. Doctors should first test to rule out other conditions with similar symptoms.