Summer on the Cape- Ticks and Poison Ivy

by Mary Pat MacKenzie

The summer of 2020 was one for the history books – no tourists, weddings postponed, no indoor dining, few or no family visits, no fireworks and the Road Race cancelled. Forward to 2021 and Covid vaccines that allow our traditional  summer activities (minus the July 4th Fireworks) to resume with joyful abandon. Weddings are back on, families are planning visits, restaurants are packed and the shops around town are booming on cloudy, non-beach days. Normal life has returned and we all recognize how lucky we are to live in this beautiful town lulled by ocean breezes. 

There are, however, a few drawbacks to this idyllic life and, no, I am not thinking of too many houseguests or weekend traffic on the Bourne Bridge. The price we pay for living in this beautiful habitat is the many creatures – chipmunks, deer, squirrels -  who  share their ticks with us. Mother Nature has also decreed that our lush landscape is perfect for poison ivy which seems to spread by the hour. Just as we learned to promote sun safety with sunscreen and hats we must learn to avoid the dangers of ticks and poisonous plants. 

Poison Ivy

Poison ivy is easily recognized by its cluster of three leaves and, in early stages, by it’s copper tinged color. Thanks to increased carbon dioxide in our atmosphere it grows so fast that a small plant on Monday can be half way up a tree by Saturday, and it’s even more poisonous than in the past. People may be so allergic to the urushiol found in this plant that they need to be treated at the ER. 

Our family has frequently suffered nasty  reactions to this noxious plant.  When people used to burn leaves in the fall my oldest son would have a terrible respiratory reaction to smoke blowing from a mile away and had to be treated with steroids. Pets can also be carriers of the toxic urushiol which may not affect them but stays active on their fur. On the morning of her wedding my daughter woke up with her eyes swollen shut and her face distorted by terrible welts.  She had not touched any poison ivy but we realized her beloved dog had been walking through it and, when he licked her face, he spread the toxins to her. She spent hours at the ER where the staff worked miracles to save her big day. 


Sadly, for those who get infected, going out in the sun is out of the question until the infection is gone so golf and the beach are not recommended. Fortunately, there are now very effective home treatments for exposure to poison ivy. Before gardening or hiking, or even just a walk on the bike path, people can apply a barrier cream like “Ivy Block” or after right after exposure wash with special Technu soap or dishwashing detergent. Wear gloves when gardening and keep tools clean. There are several varieties of disposable wipes that can be carried in a pocket and used immediately after exposure; they can also be used to wipe off affected garden tools that can spread the urushiol even weeks later. 















Ticks and Lyme Disease

When it comes to tick borne illnesses the Cape and Islands rate in the top percent of US counties with serious problems. Lyme disease may be named for the town in Connecticut where it was  recognized in the 1970’s but it has been here for at least 100 years. The CDC  has said the actual number of cases of Lyme disease here  may be much higher than statistics indicate because cases are reported by the victim’s county of residence and not the place where they may have been infected. 

It is deer ticks, not dog ticks, that carry  the dangerous bacteria which can cause lifelong physical damage. The deer get the blame, but in fact,  ticks fall off deer and are spread by smaller critters like those cute chipmunks running through your backyard. Unlike dog ticks, deer ticks are so tiny that they are almost invisible until they imbed, suck your blood and infect you. Like poison ivy our warming climate  helps  increase the number of ticks surrounding us.  

I have been gardening for over 40 years and have never had a tick on me until the past 3 weeks when I had to have 4 ticks removed.


Fortunately, we now know that we can pre-empt the infection cycle by taking antibiotics and we have tests for Lyme disease. We also know that spraying garden or hiking clothes and shoes  with pyrethrum spray will repel ticks for up to 6 washes and bug spray will help protect uncovered skin. There is now a variety of “Tick keys” on the market that quickly remove an attached tick. Twenty years ago there was a vaccine (LYMErix) to protect against Lyme disease but it was withdrawn after 3 years, apparently because of lack of consumer demand. The CDC website says that two major drug companies are in the second stage of testing for new vaccines so we may have future protection. 


In Barnstable County the Extension Department Entomologist, Larry Depsis and the Master Gardener Helpline can provide additional information on ticks and poison ivy; the website is and the phone number is 508-375-6690.  Raising awareness of these two dangers of summer for residents and visitors alike can be done –  remember the “Ban the Burn” banner on the Village Green? If we did it for sunburn and we can do it again. 


Mary Pat MacKenzie is a Neighborhood Falmouth board member and volunteer.