Tick season - prevention is key
by: Dan Palmquist, M.D.
Most of us in the Northland look forward to spring with open arms. It’s been a long winter and we’re anxious to get out and enjoy our beautiful lakes, woods and fields. And, while it’s true that spring brings warmer weather and sunshine, it also means the beginning of tick season.
The CDC reports that 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported throughout the nation each year. Certain areas of the country have a higher concentration of cases. In 2012, 95 percent of Lyme disease cases were reported from just 13 states. Lucky us, Minnesota was one of the 13.
Lyme disease is spread by the deer tick, also called blacklegged tick. According to the CDC, other types of ticks, including the wood tick, dog tick and lone star tick do not transmit the disease.
The deer tick is much smaller than other ticks, making it more difficult to spot it on your clothing or skin. The life cycle of the deer tick has three growth stages: larva, nymph and adult. Larval ticks are less than 1 millimeter in diameter, nothing more than a speck. Nymph ticks range from 1 to 2 millimeters, or about the size of a poppy seed. The average adult deer tick is 2 to 3.5 millimeters in diameter, or about the size of a sesame seed.
Not all ticks carry the Lyme disease spirochete. Ticks become infected when they bite an infected host. Lyme disease is spread to humans by ticks at the nymph or adult stages. Peak nymph activity runs from May through July, while adult ticks are active during the fall months.
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection, and can be treated with antibiotics. Early symptoms of the disease – three to 30 days post-tick bite – are fatigue, headache, stiff neck, fever, sore muscles and joints. It is estimated that 60 to 80 percent of people with Lyme disease get a distinctive “bulls-eye” rash called erythema migrans. If left untreated, the infection may spread and cause additional symptoms such as Bell’s palsy (loss of muscle tone on one or both sides of the face), meningitis, pain and swelling in the large joints, shooting pains, heart palpitations and dizziness.
Even without treatment, symptoms may resolve over a period of time, but the disease remains in the body. If left untreated, additional complications such as arthritis and neurological problems can develop.
The earlier treatment begins the better. Most patients respond well to antibiotics and recover completely.
Currently there is no vaccine available on the market for Lyme disease. But there are a number of things you can do to minimize your risk for preventing exposure to the deer ticks that spread the disease.
If you can, avoid high-risk tick areas during peak periods of tick activity. This isn’t always possible, so when you do venture into an area where ticks might be prevalent, do the following:
• When walking in the woods or field, walk in the center of the trail. Avoid the grassy edges, where ticks are likely to lay in wait.
• Wear a long sleeved shirt and pants. Tuck your shirt into your pants. Tuck your pants into the top of your socks or boots.
• Wear light colored clothing. It makes the ticks easier to spot.
• Avoid strong-smelling cologne.
• Ticks must remain attached for 24 hours before they can transmit the Lyme disease bacteria. Therefore, check frequently for ticks and remove them promptly.
• Bathe or shower as soon as possible after coming indoors. Wash your hair.
• Keep your yard free of leaves and debris. Keep grass mowed short.
• Make a landscape barrier, such as a three-foot wide border of wood chips, between your yard and any wooded area.
• Check your pets for ticks before allowing them inside the house.
• Tick repellents, such as DEET or permethrin, can be used in moderation. Apply repellents to clothing, not skin and wash clothing immediately after wearing. While effective in repelling ticks, repellents can cause serious side effects if used repeatedly in high concentrations on the skin. If unsure about repellent use, consult with your health care provider.
If you do find a tick on your body and it has attached to your skin, remove the tick with a tweezers. Grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible. Pull upward slowly and steadily. After removing the tick, clean the bite area with rubbing alcohol or soap and water. If you develop a rash or fever within days or weeks of removing the tick, see your doctor as soon as possible. Prompt treatment aids in recovery.
Minnesota summers are a welcome change from the long winter. Unfortunately summer means ticks, and ticks mean risk of Lyme disease. You don’t want to avoid all the great things Minnesota’s outdoors has to offer during the summer months. Go out there and enjoy yourself. Just take precautions to prevent ticks from finding and inviting themselves home with you.
Dr. Palmquist is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic in Cloquet.