Hiking on a secluded trail, cuddling with a pet, and enjoying a quiet summer day in a rustic backyard are all relaxing activities; they are also activities that place people at risk for contracting ticks. These insects, which generally reside in bushy areas with high grasses and leaf litter, are transmitted to humans via contact with these habitats or with animals harboring ticks.
By Jessica Capets Chevalier
The danger? Ticks can carry Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, which can result in joint and muscle pain, fatigue, headaches, fever, and, at times, more serious health problems. The good news, however, is that Lyme disease is rare in Tennessee, non-fatal, and wholly curable if recognized early on. What’s more, with a few precautions and a little awareness, you can keep yourself and your family free of ticks and Lyme disease, at home and while traveling.
Lyme disease was first fully identified in 1975, when more than 51 children around Lyme, Connecticut, were stricken by what was assumed to be juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. A concerned mother made a call to the Connecticut Health Department regarding the strange outbreak, and Dr. David Snydman was sent in to study the occurrence.
The conditions that Dr. Snydman found were similar to those that had been studied for nearly a century by doctors in Europe: notably large skin manifestations – red, expanding bulls-eye patterns – which appear on victims as indicators of the disease. Dr. Snydman associated these rashes with the arthritis-like symptoms that victims experienced, traced them to the bacteria carried by ticks, and termed the outbreak “Lyme arthritis,” which was later renamed Lyme disease.
Blacklegged (or deer) ticks are the most common type of ticks within the United States known to carry Lyme disease. Residents of central and eastern states, these ticks differ visually from other ticks because of their black legs and black heads. Additionally, males have black bodies and females have orange bodies. Lone star ticks are the second, less-commonly known carriers; lone star ticks have a white dot on their backs, are otherwise orange in color, and are found mostly in southeastern United States and Texas.
It is important to keep in mind that these physical indicators can be difficult to identify when the ticks are young and miniscule (in nymph stage) or when they are engorged with blood. Even in adulthood, unengorged deer ticks are only about the size of a sesame seed. At their largest, ticks are difficult to distinguish without the use of a magnifying device.
According to Dr. Mark Anderson, head of infection control at Hutcheson Medical Center and Memorial Hospital, Lyme disease is rarely, if ever, seen in Tennessee. “There is a lot of widespread Lyme hysteria; but I believe that there is no Lyme disease in Tennessee,” says Anderson. “Most infectious disease experts around the state would agree. My partners and I look for it a lot, and we rarely find anyone who has gotten it here.”
Diagnosing Lyme disease can be challenging. First, because we live in a mobile society, a tick bite received on vacation may not manifest symptoms for a full month; sourcing the origin of the disease may, at that point, be difficult. Second, Lyme disease symptoms – general achiness, exhaustion and depression – can be vague. Many illnesses, including the common flu, carry symptoms that can easily be mistaken for Lyme disease. Third, the diagnostic tests for Lyme disease are poor. According to Dr. Anderson, one of five positives in Lyme screen tests are false positives. “I’ve seen the rash, but I just don’t see all the progressive symptoms indicating that Lyme exists here,” Anderson notes.
Keep in mind that deer and lone star ticks are not, by virtue of themselves, carriers of Lyme disease. Ticks become transporters of Borrelia burgdorferi only after they feed from deer, mice, squirrels, or other animals who are natural carriers. Of course, it is impossible to tell which ticks are infected, so thoughtful, preventative care should be taken each time an individual enters tick-friendly habitats – especially during May, June and July, when ticks are most active.
Preventative care begins with clothing. Even on a warm day, it is wise to choose long pants and high socks to reduce the availability of skin to hungry ticks. While ticks cannot fly or jump, they will crawl to find a location to feed. Therefore, tucking pants into socks, and even taping the two together, creates a barrier that is more difficult to penetrate.
Additionally, bug repellents contain-ing 20 percent to 30 percent DEET ward off the insects. DEET-based repellents may be applied to both skin and clothing. Products containing permethrin are also effective. Permethrin kills ticks and insects on contact and is effective when applied to clothing, tents and gear; however, permethrin should not come in contact with human skin and must be applied with extreme caution.
Once properly outfitted, avoid high grasses in which ticks live. After each potential exposure to tick habitats, complete a thorough check of the body for attached ticks, making certain to pay careful attention to the groin area, the armpits and the scalp, where ticks are prone to hide.
Clothing worn outdoors should be handled carefully, too. Following a thorough washing in hot, soapy water, clothes should be dried for a full hour to ensure extermination of clinging insects.
Safeguard family and pets by destroy-ing tick habitats around the house. Each season, it is important to remove leaf litter and cut high grasses, the humid environments where ticks thrive. Additionally, you can create a “dry zone,” a border of gravel or mulch between wooded and groomed areas, which will reduce tick migration substantially. Whenever possible, seating areas, swing sets, dining tables and other busy areas should be placed far from the wooded edges of the yard. Consistent application of tick medications will further prevent pets from contracting the pests and carrying them into the home.
If nothing seems to be working to eliminate ticks in the yard, pesticides are an option. Acaricide, a type of pesticide formulated to reduce tick populations, can be used around the end of May or the beginning of June. According to the Center for Disease Control, acaricides can reduce tick populations by 68 percent to 100 percent. However, like many pesticides, acaricides are chemical agents that may impact the health of humans and animals that come in contact with them; therefore, they should be applied with caution.
If you do find a tick affixed to yourself, your child or your pet, it is important to act quickly. Lyme disease is rarely transmitted if a tick is attached for less than 36 hours, so prompt removal is key. While many urban legends exist regarding tick removal — elimination via incineration with a match, suffocation through the use of petroleum jelly or nail polish—none of these processes are as effective or safe as the simple, clean removal with tweezers. Use a good, sharp pair to grasp the tick firmly, as low on its body as possible. Pull the tick upward decisively (do not twist or turn the tweezers) until the tick is entirely removed. Wash the area well with soap and water and apply an over-the-counter antibiotic to the area.
Keep an eye on the location of the bite. The telltale bulls-eye mark of Lyme disease appears three to 32 days after infection; however, it does not appear in every case. Other symptoms to watch for include fever, headache, fatigue, depression and achiness. In either case, a doctor should be contacted. In the case of pregnant women, the condition is of greater concern as Lyme disease can infect the fetus and lead to fetal malformation or death; therefore, prevention and rapid intervention are of even greater necessity.
Early treatment of Lyme disease is achieved through oral antibiotics, and full recovery can generally be made within a few weeks. Advanced cases of Lyme disease—which may manifest symptoms such as irregular heartbeat, facial paralysis, memory loss and irregularity in sleeping—may require intravenous application of antibiotics or successive rounds of treatment. In some instances, joint inflammation and discomfort will persist even after Lyme bacteria are eradicated. This discomfort is generally treated with pain relievers and anti-inflammatory treatments.
A knowledgeable and prepared individual can enjoy relaxed hours in nature without concern. “People should never be afraid to enjoy the wonderful outdoor places around Chattanooga,” advises Dr. Anderson. Whether at home or on vacation, dressing properly, applying repellents and maintaining a thoughtful awareness of your surroundings can go a long way toward preventing tick bites and ensuring healthy, happy romps in the open air.
Jessica Capets Chevalier is a Chattanooga resident. She was raised in Western Pennsylvania and earned a BA in English at Geneva College and her MFA in Writing at Penn State University.