In this season of hiking and camping, it’s important to be on guard against ticks. Tick bites can be a very serious health threat. Over the last century, nationwide deer populations have grown from 500,000 to over 28 million. And as deer have moved in on populated areas, they've brought the risk of deer ticks and resulting Lyme disease along with them.
To transmit Lyme disease, a tick must remain attached and feeding for about 24 hours, so conduct careful and frequent tick checks to help reduce your risk of illness. Lyme can be difficult to diagnose, but it is usually effectively treated with oral antibiotics like doxycycline.
Besides the more well known Lyme disease, another deer tick-borne infection, called Powassan, got a lot of media coverage this spring. While Lyme is a bacterial infection, Powassan is a virus, related to West Nile flavivirus. It can cause encephalitis, or brain inflammation. More often, people who are infected develop no symptoms.
Unlike the much slower Lyme disease, Powassan can be transmitted in under an hour. And there is no telltale rash and no treatment, except supportive care. In severe cases, about 10% die, and more are left with neurologic deficits. However, it is very rare — diagnosed less than 50 times in the past 10 years.
When you head outdoors, whether at home or in a nearby recreation area, being prepared and alert to tick dangers is the best way to prevent these parasites from biting. Following these safety measures will help protect you and your family from ticks.
Dress smart: Wear long pants, sleeves and socks, and tuck pants cuffs into boots or socks (yes, even in summer). Light colors are best, since they help you to spot ticks more easily.
Stay on track: Stay to the center of hiking paths, and avoid grassy and marshy woodland areas. Ticks can’t jump ─ they simply hang out on brush and tall grasses waiting for you to pass and rub up against them.
Inspect daily: Inspect yourself and your children for clinging ticks after being outdoors. Deer ticks are hard to see, with nymphs being dot-sized and adults smaller than a sesame seed. Remove the tick immediately using fine-tipped tweezers, and monitor your health closely after a bite, being alert for any signs and symptoms of a tick-borne illness.
Use repellent: When in a tick-infested area, use of insect repellent is a good preventive measure; however, consider using a product designed to be applied to clothing rather than your skin.
Deer ticks are most active from April all the way through October, so use caution when venturing into tick country. If you suspect Lyme disease or its symptoms, contact your doctor immediately.