‘Tis the Season: Take Precautions against Lyme Disease

‘Tis the Season: Take Precautions against Lyme Disease

Photo credit: Ticks are a reservoir for Lyme disease bacteria.

Some outdoorsmen worry too much about Lyme disease. Some don’t worry enough.

Lyme disease isn’t about to become our next pandemic, but it continues to ruin the health of thousands. Fever, severe headaches, facial palsy, joint and muscle pain, arthritis. About 22,000 cases are confirmed each year and an additional 15,000 are suspected. Then there are spotted fevers, rickettsiosis, tularemia, relapsing fever, Heartland virus, Powassan disease … and they all have one thing in common: ticks.

Ticks. Primitive, creepy, crawly, blood-sucking, woodland monsters sometimes no bigger than this period. Ticks are ugly, disgusting arachnids, but they can’t really hurt you. They really can’t even bite. They just probe under your skin cells with a pair of tiny, long, hooked, finger-like mouth parts called chelicerae, painlessly piercing your skin. Then they insert a microscopic feeding trough called a hypostome that funnels blood out of you and into the flat tick, which slowly swells to the size of a small grape before detaching to go lay a few thousand eggs.

No, it’s not the tick that hurts you. It’s the pathogens it carries. Protozoa, bacteria, viruses. Those are what you should fear. All you have to do to avoid them is defeat the attack of the tick.

Ticks live in brush, weeds, and tall grass. They perch on the ends of vegetation with two front legs spread and poised to grab passing meals—mice, deer, you. They cannot jump or fly. They do not fall on you from overhead. They must grab you. Avoid brushing against vegetation and you should go tick free.

On the odd chance you actually do contact Nature, you can still easily defeat ticks. Here’s how:

1. Wear light-toned, mono-colored clothing to more easily see crawling ticks.

2. Tuck pants into socks and shirts (long-sleeved best) into pants. Since ticks almost always climb uphill, they’ll have a long way to go before finding any skin. Meanwhile, you can spot them and scrape them off you. They have leg hooks and hang on tight. Scrape with a knife blade or credit card held parallel to the surface. Pluck if you want. You’re highly, highly unlikely to get infected by touching a tick. The pathogens are in its gut.

3. Spray entry points like cuffs, waist bands and shirt collars with Permethrin, an insecticide from chrysanthemum flowers. It is reportedly quite safe for humans and pets, but deadly to ticks. In studies, ticks crawling on Permethrin-treated fabric fell off after covering only 10 inches. They later died. Permethrin-impregnated clothing has been proven nearly 100 percent effective against ticks.

4. Indulge periodic tick checks. It takes ticks upwards of 12 hours to find a lunch table and place an order, so conducting a full body sweep every few hours or so should eject virtually all from the premises before they begin their feast. Look carefully on nape and head. Hair hides ticks, as any dog owner can attest. A fine-toothed comb or brush can remove most.

5. Beware “seed” ticks. These are larvae, newly hatched ticks the size of poppy seeds. They come preloaded with pathogens from mamma and are usually found in leaf litter on the ground where she lays her eggs. Larvae ticks typically feed on mice, but if you sit in a nest of them, you could find yourself hosting a day care center. Permethrin is your best ally against seed ticks because they’re small enough to slip through some fabrics.

6. Take a soapy shower at the end of the day. Make a final, visual tick check, and brush/comb hair thoroughly.

7. After their first blood meal, larvae ticks grow into nymph ticks, but they need one more bloody feast before becoming adults. Nymphs, intermediate in size between larvae and adults, are also hard to detect. Employ the same defensive perimeter and look carefully.

8. If you find a tick attached, don’t freak out. It usually takes 24 to 36 hours for pathogens to move from the tick to your bloodstream. That’s after the several hours it took for the tick to climb aboard and drill for blood. You should have plenty of time to safely “slice” the tick off with that knife or credit card. You can loop a thin thread under it, pull tight and lift it off. Or use a needle-nosed tweezer to grasp its head (NEVER ITS ABDOMEN) and lift it off. Squeezing the gut can inject pathogens into you. Put the tick in a zip-close plastic bag and store in the refrigerator in case a doctor wants to identify it later. Certain species carry certain diseases.

9. There’s no “head” buried in you. Even if the mouth parts stay in your skin, they are tiny, shallow and unlikely to cause infection—unless you scratch enough to exacerbate the “wound.” Tick “bites” in North America rarely cause itching or irritation, though some people suffer allergic reactions. Clean the site and apply an antibiotic.

10. Watch the “bite site” for a few days. Any reddening suggests an infection. A red ring around the site usually indicates Lyme disease. Get checked out. Lyme disease and most other tick-borne diseases can be cured or minimized with early treatment.

11. Pay attention to your body and how you feel. If you start feeling run down, overly tired or flu-like symptoms, suspect an undetected tick and tell your doctor. Most tick-borne diseases get worse and worse with time and can be debilitating.

■ ■ ■

Editor’s Note: As the author notes, Lyme disease can be serious with approximately 22,000 cases detected each year. Please heed his precautions as those of us who live outdoors are at a greater risk of infection. On a personal note, I contracted the disease as did my father, who passed away from a heart attack that was, in part, due to complications from Lyme disease. As I think of Dad today on Father’s Day, I can’t help but wonder if he’d still be here if not for that parasite.