It’s that time of the year once again, when you and your family are enjoying the warmer weather and all the outdoor activities that come with it. Unfortunately for you, deer ticks are also taking advantage of the nice weather, and are waiting for you as you step outside.
The spring and summer months are when you are most likely to be bitten by a deer tick, and become infected with Lyme disease. The highest risk age group for contracting Lyme disease is children. Not only do they tend to spend more time outside than others, but they are less likely to be careful about where they play.
Although Lyme disease is a grave health risk to these and other family members, there are other equally debilitating tick-borne diseases one can also become infected with such as babesiosis, anaplasmosis, bartonella, tularemia, mycoplasma, tick paralysis, and viruses.
LITTLE BUG BIG PROBLEMS
How can such a small bug cause such big problems for all of us? Ticks are parasites, which survive by feeding on the blood of hosts such as mice, chipmunks, shrews, birds, squirrels, opossum, rabbits, lizards, and deer. Regrettably, they also feed on people and their pets. Although the deer tick season is pretty much year round now, the peak of the deer tick’s activity starts in May and begins to wind down in August. During this time, the nymphal deer tick (about as small as a poppy seed) is actively looking for a host. And it will be from the nymphal deer tick-bite that you and your children will most likely contract Lyme disease and/or another tick-borne co-infection.
Deer ticks require a humid environment to survive and can be found anywhere their hosts live. Thus they can be encountered in a variety of settings including woodlands, as well as leaf litter, brush piles, your lawn, ground cover (pachysandra, etc.) and gardens. They can also be found near old stonewalls, woodpiles, tree stumps and fallen logs, bird feeders, and storage sheds, anywhere their hosts feed and/or make their nests. They have even been found on park picnic tables and benches.
LYME DISEASE SYMPTOMS
There are over 100 possible symptoms associated with Lyme disease, and that is one of the reasons why it is so very difficult to diagnose—it mimics so many other disease conditions that it is usually not diagnosed early on in the disease, allowing it to spread to most every part of the body.
Soon after a tick bite, you or your children may get a rash, and have vague flu-like symptoms including fever, headache, sore throat, fatigue, muscle ache, stiff neck, and swollen lymph nodes. Other more serious conditions can affect your brain and nervous system, heart, muscles and joints, bones, and skin. Not uncommon are extreme fatigue, joint and muscle pain, chronic headaches, sleep disturbances, allergies, stomach pain, ear ringing, blurred vision, sensitivity to sounds and smells, facial numbness and tingling, mood swings, anxiety, panic attacks, memory impairment, and lack of concentration.
PERSONAL PROTECTION AND PREVENTION
When your children play outdoors in tick endemic areas, it is strongly recommended that they wear tick repellent clothing. The clothing should be treated with permethrin, an insecticide which repels and kills ticks and which has been approved by the EPA as safe for use on clothing apparel worn by adults and children. You can treat your own clothing and footwear, or purchase pre-treated clothing with the proprietary Insect Shield label from suppliers such as: REI, ExOfficio, Orvis, etc. Once per month you should also spray outdoor shoes, athletic gear, tennis bags, back packs, camping gear (anything that could end up on the ground outside) with permethrin to keep the ticks away. Wearing an EPA-approved insect repellent on exposed skin parts will also provide added protection, but by itself, does not work as effectively as tick repellent clothing
Some simple prevention measures which are highly recommended for you and your family to follow include:
- Avoid areas where there are ticks to the maximum extent possible. This is much easier said than done, but is well worth the effort.
- When outside, wear clothing that is treated with permethrin. This is one of the easiest things to do with big prevention payoffs. Also spray your outside shoe wear with permethrin once per month. And clothing your children wear at summer camp, such as T-shirts, shorts, and socks, should likewise be treated.
- If you do not choose to treat the clothing yourself (good for 6 washings), you can also send it to be treated at the Insect Shield facility in North Carolina. It will come back, looking the same as you sent it, but with the permethrin protection bonded to the fabric and good for more than 70 washings.
- Wear a tick repellent on your exposed skin. The tick repellent must say on the container that it repels ticks and for how long. You can buy insect repellents with chemicals such as IR3535, Picaridin, and DEET in them; or if you prefer using organics, try essential oils like Lemon Eucalyptus Oil and Cedar Oil.
- Keep your outside clothes outside your home. There can be ticks on the clothing from outdoor activities. As soon as your children come in from outdoors, put their clothes in a separate hamper in the mud room or garage if possible. Then as soon as you can, put their clothes in the clothes dryer on high heat for 20 to 30 minutes. The dry heat will effectively kill any ticks that may be on them.
- Do not allow any pets, which go outside, to sleep with your children or allow your pets on couches, etc. They can bring ticks into your home, which can get transferred to your children.
- Treat your pets with tick repellent products as recommended by your veterinarian, and check them for ticks when they come in from outdoors.
- Conduct full body tick checks of family members who go outside, both when they return indoors as well as at night before they go to bed. You can never check too often, as ticks can be very hard to find.
REMOVING DEER TICKS
Removing deer ticks promptly can prevent the transmission of Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases. If you discover a tick attached to you, use pointed tweezers or other tick removal tool to grab the tick as close to the skin as possible. Pull the tick straight out, taking care not to twist or squish the attached tick. Finally, wash the bite site and apply an antiseptic. Save the tick, dead or alive, in a zip lock bag for future identification and testing for possible disease organisms. You should also seek the immediate assistance of your health care provider for advice on initiating prophylactic treatment.
If you follow these recommendations and use good common sense when outdoors, you can keep your family safer from ticks and the diseases they carry.
Robert Oley, PE, MSPH, is a Public Health Consultant. for more information, visit www.boboley.com.