I would imagine most of you reading this are aware of at least one person who has been infected with and struggled with the effects of a tick-borne illness in recent years. As a kid growing up, I remember playing in a field near my home with grass that was taller than we were and tromping through the woods without a care in the world. Sure, we all ended up with a few ticks that needed to be pulled off us or the dog every season, but the risk of being infected with anything as a result was something which wasn't even on our radar. Sadly, things are very different now with the growing list of tick-borne diseases and their expanding infection ranges. I find myself increasingly paranoid when out in the woods or near tall grass. Having seen how Lyme's and other tick-borne diseases can affect people, from the difficulty in getting a diagnosis to dealing with the effects of both the disease and treatment, I would personally place ticks on the list of creatures our world would probably do well to be without. Given the complete eradication of ticks is an unlikely thing to happen anytime soon, here are some useful tools and information to help you protect yourself and your family (both the two and four-legged variety).
As with many things, preventing a tick bite is always going to be the best approach. The CDC has a helpful list worth looking at which includes:
- Avoiding contact with ticks by avoiding tall grass and wooded areas that ticks love to inhabit.
- Using a tick repellent spray on clothing
- A thorough tick check and shower when you get home, making especially sure to check any areas with delicate skin in protected areas such as behind the knees, back of the neck, armpits and the groin.
- Put any clothing worn in the dryer on high for 10 minutes to kill any ticks that may have hitched a ride into the house. Ticks can live for quite a while at each stage of development and will wander the house until they find something tasty to bit into.
- To minimize the chance your dog brings a tick into the house, a garden variety sticky tape lint roller can really fit the bill. Keep one in your car and before letting your dog hop in, run the lint roller over their entire body. A tick which is just riding on their fur (which in the case of my Sophie is mostly black with some brown brindle, making it very hard to see the little buggers), can get stuck on the tape of the lint roller and end it's journey there. I usually use two sheets worth of the roller since Sophie tends to shed and the lint roller will happily collect loose hair as well.
For those with concerns about using chemical repellents for ticks, there are some products out there which employ essential oils which can help to repel ticks and other bugs. The CDC has posted a handy list of essential oils along with links to studies on their efficacy on various bugs. Many of these products can now be found widely in stores, but they need to be reapplied regularly to be most effective, so stash yours in your pocket or backpack when you head out into nature.
Protect yourself, but keep Fido safe too
An important note regarding essential oils for those who love to go outdoors with their dogs is that some essential oils that are safe for us are not safe for our four legged friends. Essential oils that are NOT safe for dogs but may be present in natural tick repellent products include: Rosemary, Thyme, Garlic and Tea Tree oils.
I have been using a simple homemade tick repellent recipe this year both on myself and my dog Sophie, and so far we've both been largely tick free. I am including a link to the recipe so that you can try it yourself. This particular recipe has Rose Geranium oil in it and as you might expect, smells rather like roses. After shaking the bottle well, give yourself and your friends (furry or not) a light spray down. If you are out for several hours or your pooch likes to jump in any available body of water no matter the size, you will want to reapply. A good rule of thumb is when you stop noticing the odor of the essential oil it is probably time for a fresh spritz.
2. Dealing with a Bite
So, you've done your best at preventing a tick bite, but one of the sneaky devils has slipped past your defenses. There are some handy tools out there to help remove the tick completely and safely. Some folks can just grab onto them and remove them by hand, but for me at least, that idea totally grosses me out. A number of folks have recommended a tool called the Tick Twister (available in pet stores and online), but a solid pair of tweezers can work just as well. Just be sure you get the whole tick as leaving any behind can lead to infection of the bite area.
Once the tick is removed, it used to be you would have to wait and see if you developed any symptoms. Thankfully, there is now a service being run out of the University of Massachusetts Amherst called the Tick Report which allows for a much faster answer. You send in the tick you have removed and they will test it for the full range of tick-borne pathogens. There are several advantages to testing the tick directly. First, it is much easier to identify the pathogen itself in a tick rather than trying to see if your immune system is showing any signs of infection. Second, the data from every tick tested is then added to a database which allows the tracking of areas affected by particular tick-borne pathogens. Third, you get the results within 3 days, which allows for treatment to start very soon after a bite regardless of whether a "bullseye" reaction occurs. It is important to note that the classic red "bullseye" only appears in 50% or less of Lyme's infections. The downside to this service is that the testing is not something currently covered by insurers and the tests can range from $50-$200 per tick depending on the level of detail you want.
3. Treatment and recovery from an infection
The one thing that unfortunately seems to be consistent across the entire Lyme's medical community is that of ongoing debate. Consensus can often be very hard to find when it comes to the proper way to approach treating tick-borne diseases. This is due to a number of reasons:
- Many tick-borne diseases can have a long lag time before they show symptoms. Then, the symptoms can be very easily confused with other common ailments. Low grade fever, achiness and joint pain can all be attributed to normal everyday things and given that they can occur long enough after a tick bite that it is easy to forget there may be a connection.
- Many of the diagnostic tests for Lyme's and other tick borne diseases have a significant level of both false negative and false positive results. More and more, Lyme experts are placing more confidence in Lyme results from IGeneX. The drawback is that many insurance companies are behind the science and do not cover tests run by IGeneX as of yet. I have recently seen a dear friend go through the entire battery of available Lyme's, Babesia and Bartonella tests through their PCP, all of which came out negative. Yet, a recent IGeneX test ordered by a Lyme's specialist showed a clear positive result for Lyme's. This typifies the experience of many patients with tick-borne diseases. They have a clear exposure to a tick bite, then symptoms which fit with one or more of these diseases, but testing often doesn't show a positive result making it difficult to start treatment early.
- It is possible to have multiple infections at the same time either from the same tick bite or from multiple exposures.
- Treatments effective for one tick-borne disease are not necessarily effective against others and can have side effects that can be problematic. Many of these diseases also have overlapping symptoms. Concurrent infection combined with the often slow onset can make unraveling the mystery and getting an effective treatment regimen sorted out even more difficult.
When it comes to treating Lyme's or other tick-borne infections, the primary treatment path lies within Western medicine. Infections of this sort need to be cleared using antibiotics. However, by helping to deal with some of the symptoms of the disease, the side effects of treatment as well as the mental and emotion toll they can take, acupuncture and traditional chinese medicine (TCM) along with diet and lifestyle can play important supporting roles. As with any significant illness, it is a matter of assembling an experienced team of providers and specialists as well as a support system at home in order to best "weather the storm."