Summer is here, and while the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted the cancellation of festivals, concerts and other large gatherings, people who enjoy being among nature are enjoying the outdoors. Given social distancing and other public health safety measures that are still in place across much of the country —particularly large, urban areas — hiking, camping and fishing can be great ways to pass the time and still be safe.
Being in the woods and mountains does have its own risks, however, including being bitten by a tick and infected with Lyme disease. This insidious bacterial illness is usually curable with a course of antibiotic treatment; however, if untreated it can cause facial paralysis, joint pain, severe headaches with neck stiffness, and heart palpitations, among other maladies. Months to years later, repeated episodes of joint pain and swelling may occur, and people stricken sometimes develop shooting pains or tingling in their arms and legs.
Even with appropriate treatment, about 10% to 20% of those infected develop joint pain, memory problems and tiredness that can persist for at least six months; so it is best to take the proper precautions to avoid tick bites, and to know what to do if bitten.
A host of problems
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ticks can’t fly or jump. These bloodsucking arachnids wait for a host by resting on the tips of grasses and shrubs. When a host brushes against the tick, its hook-like appendages grab on. It then finds a suitable place to feed. This can be anywhere on the body, but common locations include the armpits, groin and head.
When hiking in the woods are other tick habitat, it is advisable to wear clothing that cover the arms and legs, and use DEET-based insect repellant.
“If you’re going to be spending time outdoors in wooded areas or tall grasses, wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts and closed-toe shoes. It is also recommended to wear light colored clothing to make ticks easier to spot on your body,” says entomologist Michael Bentley, director of training and education for the National Pest Management Association in Fairfax, Virginia.
Thoroughly check clothes and the body for ticks, with special attention to the head, where ticks can be difficult to spot. If a dryer is available, running clothes through on high heat for 10 minutes is usually enough to kill ticks.
“It is important to note that although a tick brought home on clothing or in camping gear may still look for a host — either a person or a pet — ticks will not reproduce in the home,” says Jory Brinkerhoff, a biology professor at the University of Richmond.
Removing a tick from the body as soon as possible is crucial to prevent the transmission of various tick-borne diseases, including Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis, tick-borne relapsing fever and tularemia.
“Using tweezers to remove a tick is the best technique,” Bentley says. “After pulling back any hair from around the tick, locate its head and grasp it as close to the skin as possible. Do not grab the tick’s body, as this can cause the tick to regurgitate back into the bite.”
Next, pull the tick outward without twisting or wiggling, which may result in tearing the head off and leaving it lodged in the skin. Once it’s been removed, thoroughly clean the bite area with soap and water.
Keep an eye on the area over the next few weeks for any signs of a rash. If you experience a fever or rash of any kind, contact your doctor and explain your bite, Bentley says.
Signs of Lyme disease
Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease in the United States and is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and, rarely, Borrelia mayonii. It is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks.
The telltale sign of Lyme disease is a bullseye rash at the site of the bite, says Sean Beckmann, an assistant biology professor at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida.
However, up to 60% of people who have Lyme disease report never seeing a bullseye rash.
“The signs of most tick-borne diseases are similar to those of the flu — fever, lethargy, muscle soreness, and in some cases nausea or joint pain,” Beckmann says. “Tick-borne diseases are caused by bacteria and parasites and need to be treated differently than the flu.”
Because symptoms can be confused with other diseases, including the flu and COVID-19, it’s important doctors know about exposure to a tick.
“Most tick-borne disease can be treated successfully if treated promptly, but delays in treatment can lead to serious and debilitating symptoms,” Brinkerhoff says.