Summer should be a carefree season full of picnics and swimming, a time for hikes and barbeques on the deck, not a time to fret about tick-borne illnesses. As few as ten years ago it was unusual to find even one brown dog tick or lone star tick on your person after a weekend of camping in northern NY state. Now in many places all you have to do is set foot in the brush to get several black-legged ticks, commonly known as deer ticks, which are harder to see than other ticks.
The deer tick is known to transmit Lyme disease as well as Babesiosis, anaplasmosis, Powassan virus and other serious illnesses. In fact it’s possible for two or more diseases to be transferred to a host, human or otherwise, by a single tick bite.
Most infections come from an immature or “nymph” stage deer tick, which can be tinier than a poppy seed and nearly impossible to detect (at least for those of us over fifty) without magnification. The adults are not exactly huge, being a bit smaller than a sesame seed. To avoid tick bites, those who work or play outdoors need to start taking precautions that weren’t necessary in the past.
This isn’t to say we need to panic (though feel free to do so if you like, of course). According to the National Institutes for health (NIH), only about 20% of deer ticks are infected with Borrelia burgdorferi, the spirochete bacterium that causes Lyme. In most cases, ticks must feed for 24-36 hours in order to transmit disease. And even in the case of transmission, prompt treatment cures Lyme in the majority of infected people.
However, it’s not always as easy as taking pills and getting better. Unlike a tissue infection where antibiotics usually provide relief within days, Lyme symptoms can persist for weeks or months after the standard 3-week treatment has ended. In rare cases it can be a year or more. This is called “Post-Lyme Syndrome,” and its causes are not well understood. Lyme is not a disease to take lightly.
Avoiding ticks is the first order of business. Ticks “quest” at the tips of tall grass or brush, waiting to cling to the next warm body that brushes against them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend using products containing 20-30% DEET on exposed skin. Clothing, footwear and gear such as tents can be treated with products containing the active ingredient permethrin.
To deter ticks, homeowners can clear brush, weeds and tall grasses from the edges of their yards. Ticks like to hide out under leaf litter (which is why sprays are not generally effective against them), so maintaining a yard perimeter that’s raked clean can help keep their numbers down.
Pets should be treated regularly with a systemic anti-tick product or tick collar so they don’t bring deer ticks into the home. Talk to your vet about getting your pets vaccinated against Lyme (sadly there is no human vaccine at the moment).
Despite their name, deer ticks feed on – and infect – many wild critters, particularly the ubiquitous white-footed mouse. Because of ticks’ prevalence, even in the Adirondacks, people who spend a lot of time outside will eventually have contact with deer ticks. This is where tick hygiene comes in.
Shower and wash thoroughly every evening and then check for ticks. Unfortunately they like hard-to-see places such as the armpits, groin, scalp and the backs of the knees, so look closely in these areas.
If you find a tick has latched onto you, the CDC recommends you remove it by grasping it as close to the skin as possible with tweezers and pulling straight up until it releases. You may have to pull hard if it’s been feeding for some time. Don’t twist it or use heat, petroleum jelly or other home remedies to get it to release, as this can increase the chances of disease transmission.
Typical early symptoms of Lyme disease include severe headache, chills, fever, extreme fatigue, joint pain and dizziness. A red, expanding “bull’s-eye” rash (erythema migrans) may occur between 3-30 days after a bite. But according to the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society (ILADS is a nonprofit international medical society), fewer than 50% of people with Lyme disease recall having the erythema migrans rash.
Symptoms can vary widely with each individual. Early signs may go away on their own, but the Lyme organism will cause more serious health issues in the future if ignored. These include arthritis, heart problems and debilitating memory loss and confusion.
If you’ve been bitten by a tick and have these symptoms, call your doctor right away. They can order a blood test, or may even prescribe antibiotics based on symptoms. For more information, go to the CDC website or to the NIH site. A comprehensive website is also hosted at www.ilads.org.
Photo courtesy the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.