Why the Swedish Army Hopes Garlic and 'Lyme' Don't Mix

Aug.15, 2000 -- The Swedish Army has begun using garlic to ward off insidious blood-sucking creatures that can cause fever, fatigue, and even some more serious conditions down the road. But it's not superstition -- it's frustration over the inability to halt the tiny ticks that cause Lyme disease.

The results of a new study published in the Aug. 16 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association show that garlic supplements may be able to fight off the ticks and hopefully decrease the risk of Lyme disease, especially in high-risk areas.

"[Our] results suggest that garlic may be considered as a tick repellent for individuals and populations at high risk for tick bite, rather than other agents that might have more adverse effects," writes study author Louise Stjernberg, RN, MPH. Stjernberg is from Lund University in Malmö, Sweden.

She and her colleagues gave 1,200 mg of garlic supplements a day to 50 Swedish soldiers doing military exercises in an area with a large number of ticks. They then counted the number of tick bites on the soldiers. The researchers found that the soldiers who took a placebo had significantly more tick bites than the ones who took the garlic supplements.

Some people, though, would still prefer to keep garlic as a supplement for recipes, not soldiers. Sandra Evans, a biologist with the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine, Entomological Sciences Program in Aberdeen, Md., tells WebMD that she would not trust any insect repellent, including garlic supplements, that had not been proven to work by medical research.

"If you're going into an area where you know there's a problem, you don't want to rely on something that hasn't been extensively tested and proven," Evans says. "Although a very few people have reported problems with sensitivity to the formulations we use, most people don't. I'm sure even garlic supplements would produce sensitivity in a few people."

Evans says the Army uses the Department of Defense Insect Repellent System for the troops, which includes an insect repellent for the skin called DEET, and a repellent that's used on clothes called permethrin. "Both of these compounds have been extensively tested and proven to be quite safe, " she says, adding that both substances are also available commercially for the weekend warrior.

To nip the disease in the bud, Eugene Shapiro, MD, MPH, tells WebMD a vaccine may be useful in some circumstances to prevent Lyme disease. "I think the vaccine for Lyme disease is safe and moderately effective," he says, explaining the vaccine involves three or four shots and offers about 70% protection from the disease.

"For people who know they are going to be exposed, it may be reasonable," Shapiro says. "For someone whose exposure is limited, it's probably not worth the risk. Other preventive measures, such as clothing barriers and insect repellents, may be prudent."

Shapiro is the author of a previous study published in TheJournal of the American Medical Association on the long-term outcomes of Lyme disease. He says that the concern surrounding Lyme disease is unnecessary. "What we really need is a remedy for the anxiety about Lyme disease because we have plenty of ways to treat Lyme disease."