Black flies can put a damper on summer fun, but a tick bite can change your life forever. Deer ticks (ID links provided below) are known to transmit Lyme disease, which is caused by any of three species of spirochete bacteria in the genus Borrelia. When a deer tick latches onto us for longer than 24 hours, it barfs a load of these fast-moving, corkscrew-shaped microbes into our bloodstream. The spirochetes, which have a particular craving for hearts, brains, and joints, begin to drill through our tissues in search of a nice place to settle down and reproduce. As you might imagine, the results are unpleasant.
These days it’s no shock to learn that officials may not always give us the most up-to-date information on a fairly new disease which poses a grave threat to the public. The surprise is that it doesn’t involve COVID-19.
Since 2016, a nonstop avalanche of new findings on Lyme has crushed a lot of long-held beliefs about this disease. It is regularly misdiagnosed, harder to treat than one might assume, and can debilitate a person for months or years. In a few instances, its effects last a lifetime. Lyme is a huge – perhaps the biggest – health risk to farmers, forestry workers and others whose jobs are principally outdoors. In this first of a three-part series, I hope to correct some misunderstandings about Lyme disease, and explore why it’s so hard to diagnose.
Getting fresh air is more important than ever this coming summer during the public health crises, but it would be wise to remember that both ticks and people are going to be active and outside. Laura Harrington, a professor of entomology, vector biologist, and Director of the CDC Northeast Regional Center for Excellence in Vector Borne Diseases (NEVBD) has shared some tips on how to avoid ticks.
A bacterial infection that causes Lyme disease is the most important tick-borne human infection in the U.S., with around 200,000-300,000 reported cases per year. The blacklegged tick or ‘deer tick’ is the vector of Lyme disease in most of the U.S. It can also transmit other pathogens to people and pets, including the agents that cause babesiosis, anaplasmosis and Powassan disease. Blacklegged ticks are most common in forested areas and shaded trail edges with abundant leaf litter and shrubby plants, Harrington says.
Harrington recommends a few personal protection measures to keep ticks from biting, such as tick repellent, first and foremost. She also recommends light-colored clothing, and to tuck your pantlegs into your socks. It also wouldn’t hurt to treat your clothing with permethrin, or to purchase permethrin-treated clothing. Remember to check yourself for ticks often as well, both while hiking and after you get home! It only takes 24-48 hours after the tick attaches before it can begin to transmit Lyme disease. For other pathogens like the Powassan virus, transmission can happen quickly, so it is good to check as often as possible.
Check for ticks all over your body, including your back, neck, and hairline. If you happen to find a tick, carefully remove it with sharp tweezers by grasping as close to the point of attachment as possible and pulling. Once you are back inside, place your clothes in the dryer for at least 20 minutes, and take a shower (a good place to perform a tick check). You can also place your clothes in a sealed garbage bag to dry later.
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