This is my favorite time of year to be outside. But alas, there’s a record number of tick-borne illnesses that are being reported and treated. It’s a good thing that there are precautions that can keep us safe, despite the annoyance of the extra preparation before venturing out in the woods.
The wetter winter and spring has produced a bumper crop of ticks from larvae that were not killed off during a winter that was fairly mild, with long stretches of warmer than usual weather. Scientists are blaming climate change, as larger stretches of the U.S. population are experiencing tick-borne illnesses that were once confined to specific regions. For example, Rocky Mountain Fever, named because it was first diagnosed in Montana, is now being seen in the Midwest and even in southern climes. Lyme disease, which earned its name from Lyme, Connecticut, and was seen mostly in New England states, is now commonly seen in most parts of the U.S. One cattle rancher in Florida reported that 20% of his cattle was afflicted by tick borne diseases.
Many of us have memories of jumping in leaves, rolling down hills in the grass, playing in the woods and climbing trees. These days, forewarned is forearmed, as we need protection from potentially serious illnesses before we come in close contact with forests, mountains, bushes and meadows.
Ticks don’t jump, fly, or drop from trees. The only way that ticks transfer to humans is by direct contact with shrubs, trees, and tall grasses. Dogs often get ticks, and although dogs can’t catch Lyme disease, they can transmit it. Tick collars are minimally useful; one should check his/her dog after every walk outside to make sure your home and body remain tick free.
Most of us know about the bullseye shaped rash that is a hallmark of Lyme disease. But only 70% of people who contract this have the telltale skin rash. If it goes undiagnosed, serious joint, muscle and even cognitive symptoms may result. The best treatment is early detection and strong antibiotics.
Lyme isn’t the only, nor the most serious disease that ticks may carry. Powassan is a rarer strain of virus that has even more damaging effects. Thirteen people have been diagnosed with Powassan in our state since 2014, with 3 fatalities. This disease can cause encephalitis, and has a 10-15% mortality rate. Although the initial symptoms like headache, vomiting, high fever, confusion, loss of coordination and speech difficulties are very serious, people can recover, but it’s essential to get medical treatment as early as possible. Other common viruses carried by ticks are babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, anaplasmosis, Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness, Tick-Borne Relapsing Fever, and tularemia.
Babesiosis is a tick-borne illness that was originally seen only in cattle, but now also has been diagnosed in humans. Symptoms are more vague than that of other illnesses, and malaise and intermittent fevers may go on for months before a diagnosis is made. Long courses of antibiotics is the antidote, but the sooner it is detected, the better the prognosis.
Anaplasmosis is another strain of virus that has similar symptoms of fever, headache and general arthralgias and fatigue. Suffice to say early treatment is essential, as this global virus can has serious long term effects. For more information about tick-borne illnesses, see https://www.cdc.gov/features/stopticks/
So what can you do to enjoy the great outdoors but protect yourself at the same time?
Here are the experts’ suggestions:
- DEET is the most effective mosquito and tick repellent, and strengths between 20-50% are ideal for any exposed skin when walking outside in leafy areas. For a handy guide to the best tick repellents, see https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/insect-repellents.html
- Use Permethrin, which is a spray for your clothing that lasts through 6 washings. This formula actually kills ticks, rather than just repelling them, and has proven to be very effective.
- Cover your arms and legs, and particularly your lower body, or body parts that come into contact with brush, bushes, grasses and leaves.
- Do a very thorough tick check after being outside and be sure to check all the crevices, as ticks like warm, moist areas. The groin, armpits and scalp, the back of knees, behind the ears and around the waist are common areas for ticks to attach.
- You may not feel a tick bite, since they are very small, with the larvae being about the size of pinpoint, the nymphs the size of a period, and the adults the size of an apple seed.
- Be sure to check your hair, as they often will try to migrate to the scalp.
- Take a hot shower right after being outside, which should kill any ticks that may be on you. Ticks take up to 36 hours to attach and begin to suck blood, so they can be easily taken off before they latch on.
- Wash your clothing and put it in the dryer for at least 10 minutes to be sure that all ticks are killed.
- If you find a tick on you, the best way to remove it is to get fine pointed tweezers, grab the tick as close to the skin as you can, and pull gently and firmly straight up. You should keep the tick and bring it to the doctor for identification if you think you’ve been infected.
- If you’ve found a tick on your body, tune in closely to any changes in your health. Lyme disease takes 24-36 hours to show symptoms, but Powassan takes only 15 minutes.
- Get immediate medical help if you suspect you have been infected and have any symptoms including but not limited to:
- a red spot or rash near the bite site
- a full body rash
- neck stiffness
- a headache
- nausea and/or vomiting
- muscle or joint pain or achiness
- a fever
- confusion or any change in your cognition
One piece of promising news is that there is a vaccine in development that is slated to be widely available by 2018. Researchers are hoping that this public health approach will go a long way toward preventing these potentially deadly viruses.
So, suit up, spray yourself and your clothing, and check yourself and your dog after walks for these tiny but outsize threats. Then you can still enjoy the wonders of the season!