Late summer and fall seems the perfect time for camping, hiking and enjoying the outdoors. Heading out to revel in the cooler evening temperatures and fall color, though can be hazardous to your health. Ticks have become more numerous especially in areas known for outdoor activities. Twenty years ago ticks were confined to certain regions in the Midwest and Northeast and if you weren’t going there, you knew that you didn’t need to worry. A couple years ago the CDC raised the expected number of cases of Lyme disease from 30,000 per year to 300,000 and they have redrawn their map of Lyme disease hot spots, including an increase from 69 to 260 counties in the northeast.
You may scoff at climate changes as not real, but some theorize that these changes are real and can be seen in the increase in ticks in areas they hadn’t been and in the exponential increase in tick-borne diseases. Lyme disease is not the only disease that these pests carry, but it is the most well-known. And although it is well-known, many people do not realize that the disease can be deadly. The focus is usually on the fever and headache that is typical of the disease, but Lyme disease can also cause long term symptoms including vision problems, inflammation of the joints similar to rheumatoid arthritis and inflammation of the heart leading to “heart block”, an interruption of the heartbeat, which could cause sudden cardiac death.
In addition, some cases of Lyme disease are not caught early and may not respond well to antibiotics causing symptoms known as post treatment Lyme disease syndrome, often referred to as “chronic Lyme”. 10-20% of those infected have a cluster of lingering symptoms such as fatigue, trouble concentrating and muscle or joint aches after treatment. It is unclear whether the symptoms are due to an infection that was not eradicated with antibiotics or to damage that remains from the original infection.
The tick’s mechanism of biting ensures that they are often not felt. In a study conducted by Georgia Southern University, out of 258 students who had been bitten, only 4% of them were aware of the bites. Since only half of those who contract Lyme disease from a tick bite develop symptoms, many people carry Lyme disease around untreated for months or even years before realizing that this is causing their long term symptoms. Stories abound of people who contract Lyme disease but spend years trying to get a diagnosis, often because they don’t recall being bitten.
As if Lyme disease isn’t bad enough, ticks also carry other severe illnesses including babesiosis, a parasitic infection, sometimes called “America’s Malaria”, anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis, rickettsiosis (also known as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever) and a newly discovered infection that hasn’t even been named yet. Prevention is the best plan and as a whole, we need to get better at it:
- Check to see if ticks are prevalent, or becoming prevalent where you will be.
- Wear light colored clothing so that you can see ticks crawling on you.
- Tuck your pants into your socks.
- Use bug spray containing DEET or permethrin to deter them from attaching.
- Check your body and clothes for ticks when you come back inside.
If you suspect that you have been bitten, or have been in a tick heavy area, watch for symptoms including fever, headache and a rash around the site that resembles a bullseye. If you develop symptoms, get tested to determine if you have the antibodies to Lyme disease. The sooner you know that you have been infected the sooner you can start on a course of antibiotics to prevent long term side effects and illness. If you are dealing with post treatment Lyme disease syndrome or rheumatoid arthritis triggered by Lyme disease, treat it like chronic fatigue with good sleep and exercise habits as well as treatment for depression if needed.