By Wes Siler
30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported to the US CDC each year, making it the most common vector-borne disease in America. Both you and your dog are exposed to it every time you’re outdoors. It can block your heart, cause intense pain and, sometimes, even lead to death. And reported cases are on the rise.
What Lyme Disease Does To Your Body
“Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks.” — The CDC
A few days to a month after being bitten by an infected tick, a red rash will begin expanding around that site. In 70 to 80 per cent of cases, this rash begins to look like a bullseye and can expand up to 12 inches in diameter. This rash won’t itch or burn, but don’t be fooled. While it’s growing, you’ll also start experiencing fatigue and fever, intense headaches will occur and your muscles and joints will also grow sore.
At this point, most people seek treatment. If allowed to continue, the infection becomes much worse.
You may experience additional rashes on other, unbitten parts of your body. Some people lose control of their facial muscles, causing one side of their face to slump, a condition known as Bell’s palsy. Your headaches will grow worse and your neck will become stiff as bacteria infects your spinal fluid. Your joints will begin to swell. Shooting headaches will prevent sleep. And, last but not least, you’ll begin to experience heart palpitations as the bacteria infects your heart tissue and begins to block the electrical signals between the heart’s upper and lower chambers.
Not everyone gets all the symptoms; if you think you may be experiencing Lyme disease, get your arse to a doctor.
If untreated, long term Lyme disease infection and cause arthritis; the CDC says 60 per cent of untreated patients report this. 5 per cent report chronic neurologic symptoms like shooting pain, numbness, tingling and the loss of short-term memory. Fatigue will also become a constant in your life.
And, these symptoms may not stop with treatment. Lyme disease is thought to trigger an autoimmune response in your body. The 10 to 20 per cent of patients who experience Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome have their immune system continue to try and fight the disease after it’s gone, damaging their tissue. There is no known treatment for joint pain, neurological symptoms and fatigue that accompany PTLDS.
Your dog can also be infected by Lyme disease, with many of the same symptoms. Infection rates are currently unknown, but likely widespread.
How You Get Lyme Disease
Well, you get bitten by an infected tick. But, the story’s a bit more complicated than that.
Lyme disease is exclusively spread by common deer ticks over in the US. Those are also called blacklegged ticks or, if you’re a scientist, either Ixodes scapularis (eastern states) or Ixodes pacificus (western states). They get it by feeding on the blood of infected rodents; the bacteria enters their gut, then takes up residence in their salivary glands. That’s how it gets to you.
Most human infections are caused by ticks in their nymph stage, when they’re still small enough to go unnoticed and may be able to feed longer, undisturbed. That’s key, because the tick needs to be attached for 36 to 48 hours in most cases, before transmission of the bacteria occurs.
These nymph ticks are small, only 2mm across, so they’re easily able to sneak into your hair, groin or armpits, then spend a few days sucking your blood.
Lyme isn’t the only disease that may be carried by ticks. Co-infection of babesiosis and human granulocytic anaplasmosis are common and are one of the factors that make misdiagnosis of Lyme so common.
Locations of reported US Lyme disease infections, 2013.
How To Avoid Lyme Disease
Carefully check yourself over after spending time in the outdoors and during any multi-day trips. Find and remove any ticks. Do the same for your dogs and kids, in that order.
You need to get that tick off there pronto, so don’t “paint” it with vaseline or nail polish then wait for it to drop off. But, you do need to be careful with the extraction so that you’re certain you get all parts of the the head and mouth, which are currently lodged in your skin. Using a pair of tweezers, grab the tick as close to your tender flesh as possible, then pull straight outwards gently and evenly. Don’t twist or jerk it, this can separate parts of the tick, leaving them behind. You should be able to feel and see the tick sliding out of your skin. Flush that little guy down the toilet. If you’re camping, wadding it up in some very tacky tape works. Don’t burst the tick with your fingers; remember you’re dealing with a bacterial infection here. Clean the bite area with alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, iodine or soap and water. Don’t “dig” out any bits of the head you may have left behind, your body will force those out as the bite heals.
If you’ve never done this before, it’s a little gross but doesn’t hurt. If you’ve done it a million times, you’ll have it down pat and probably dont’ need the tweezers anymore; I don’t.
The US CDC recommends that you use a DEET-based bug spray and permethrin treated clothing. As we learned in that article about mosquitos, 50 per cent DEET gives you the best duration of protection; it’s what you should be using.
LL Bean has a great range of permethrin-treated outdoor clothes, the chemical is retained through 70 machine washes. You can also buy that chemical as a spray; it takes 114ml to treat an outfit and that then lasts six to seven washes. Spraying down your backpack, camp chair, socks, boots, tent, etc is also a good way to keep ticks (and other bugs) off.
Factory treated clothing is your best option for frequent use because it retains the chemical that much longer. I use the spray to treat my regular hiking socks, tents and stuff like that. It’s not supposed to damage delicate fabrics and it hasn’t hurt any of my stuff, but use common sense.
The liquid spray can be toxic to dogs and cats. Dry, it’s safe, but I wouldn’t use it to treat their bed, blanket, collar or anything they’ll be in contact with for extended periods.
Wiley’s worn a Bayer Seresto flea and tick collar since he was a puppy. It contains a similar tick repelling chemical that’s safer. He accompanies me into the mountains almost weekly, joins us an adventures all over the country and runs off-leash through bushes in the Hollywood Hills every day. In all that time, I’ve only ever found two ticks on him. Both after spending a week backpacking the Lost Coast; my friend’s dog without a Seresto collar got 15 or more on the same trip.
At home, keep your grass trimmed, leaves raked and brush cleared. Surround your garden and any children’s play areas with a barrier of wood chips or gravel that’s at least three feet wide; ticks won’t migrate through that. Locate any play equipment in the sun; the ticks will stay off it. And prevent rodent infestations in your home, yard or outbuildings by denying them good habitats; close off entrances and remove potential food sources like trash.
How Lyme Disease Is Treated
I’m putting this last because, while simple, diagnosis and treatment aren’t 100 per cent effective. This is a disease you really want to avoid.
If you’re diagnosed with Lyme disease in its early stages, your doctor just puts you on a simple, oral course of antibiotics like doxycycline, amoxicillin, or cefuroxime axetil. Bam, no more Lyme disease. If you wait until it gets in your spinal fluid, brain or heart, you’ll need intravenous treatment. That’s less fun, but is also effective.
Problems arise if you’re one of the 10 to 20 per cent of people who get PTLDS, as described earlier. They don’t know how to treat that yet, so you’re talking about persistent pain, fatigue and other symptoms.
Of course, that’s if you’re properly diagnosed. Those two co-infection bacteria complicate matters, as do the symptoms’ nebulous nature. Your doctor may miss it altogether, especially if there’s no distinct bullseye rash, which there isn’t in 20 to 30 per cent of cases.
So yeah, be fastidious about checking yourself, your kids and your dog for ticks and use the repellents. Lyme disease is no joke.
Top photo: Macroscopic Solutions
This article originally appeared on Indefinitely Wild, Gizmodo's blog on adventure travel and the gear that gets us there