How Lyme Disease Affects Outdoor Activities

People in the northeast of the US probably make fewer outdoor trips because of the prevalence of Lyme disease.

Lyme disease is widespread in the northeastern US. But could this make people avoid the outdoors?

The answer is yes, according to a new study from Yale University. Individual choices have a big economic impact, according to the scientists. 

Senior author Eli Fenichel, PhD, said in a press release, “Lyme disease has been around for a few decades but it still has a big cost to society… the cost is not what people spend on doctors, or medicine, or even bug spray. These are costs that everybody incurs because we’re all choosing second-choice activities to avoid getting Lyme disease.”

Dr. Fenichel is an assistant professor at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

Lyme disLyme_Disease stages of a tick's growthease is a tick-borne infection from the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, caused when a black-legged tick bites a human. Common symptoms include fever, rash, fatigue and headache. The symptoms can be subtle and are similar to other conditions such as flu, which makes the disease hard to recognize and diagnose.

Tick repellents and removal, as well as the destruction of tick habitat, are the primary strategies to combat the disease. Once infected, patients need antibiotics to combat the bacteria.

Dr. Fenichel and colleagues wanted to know if the perceived risk of getting Lyme disease made people choose other activities.

The researchers analyzed data from the American Time Use Survey conducted by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. They found north-easterners will make an estimated 1 billion fewer trips to the outdoors than they would if Lyme disease didn’t exist.

Each person skips eight 73-minute trips to the outdoors – approximately nine hours of outdoor time. This is considerably more than the few minutes of lost outdoor time in those areas where Lyme disease is less prevalent.

Although the most obvious lost outdoor time involves activities such as camping, hiking or hunting, it also means people avoid trips to the park and outdoor activities such as picnics. The total cost to the region of forgoing such trips is estimated at roughly $2.8 to $5 billion annually. 

“It’s an issue that affects all of us, but it’s one of those environmental challenges that are so difficult to handle as a society,” Fenichel said. “Everybody cares a little bit, but perhaps not enough to take action. Though, in aggregate we’d be much better off if we cooperate to deal with Lyme disease. It’s a lot of people making very small changes, but in such a densely populated region that has major impacts.”

The study was published in the April issue of Environmental and Resource Economics.

Information on study funding and conflict of interest was not available.

Yale University, “Lyme disease imposes large cost on the northeast United States”
Environmental and Resource Economics, “The Allocation of Time and Risk of Lyme: A Case of Ecosystem Service Income and Substitution Effects”
Written by: Beth Greenwood, RN | Medically reviewed by: Dr. Robert Carlson, M.D.