Outdoor Adventurers Beware: It's Tick Season!
Winter is over and the land is returning to its season of green. If you and your family are planning on getting some much-needed outdoor time, it's important to know that you're not the only ones who could show up to your picnic or hike. It's officially tick season and these critters aren't picky about what they feed on, as long as they have a living host. Keep in mind that not all tick bites are a problem, other than being inconvenient. And ticks can also feed on you and move on, without causing you any harm, if you catch and remove them in time.
Tick season really starts when the temperature is above freezing. These resilient guys are more active in warm, humid weather though, making summer the perfect time for them to thrive. Of course, we are more likely to be engaging in fun outdoor activities like camping and hiking between late spring and fall as well.
Ticks and Lyme Disease
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), about 30,000 cases of Lyme Disease are reported every year, although many people believe the real number is at least ten times that amount. Initial symptoms can include a target-like rash, fever, lethargy, and chills. These can last up to six months after a 2 to 4-week treatment period with antibiotics. If the disease is allowed to progress, joint, heart, and nervous system issues will arise. Lyme Disease is only present in the deer tick (blacklegged tick), although other ticks can transmit different tick-borne diseases. Even after treatment, antibodies can stay in your system for years.
While Lyme Disease is more prevalent on the east coast, deer ticks carrying the disease can also be found in northern California and other places where canyons and hiking trails are pervasive. Picking up one of these tiny bloodsuckers is as easy as brushing up against a bush or some grass. They range in size from little more than a speck, to about the size of a pencil eraser. People are more likely to pick the disease up from young nymphs, which are much smaller than adults. They seek out hard-to-reach moist areas like the armpits and around the groin. If the tick that has attached to you is infected and allowed to feed for 2 days, it's likely to have transmitted the disease.
What Causes Lyme Disease
The tick isn't entirely to blame for this potentially debilitating disease — they are only the carrier. Bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi is the real culprit. They are present in the saliva of some deer ticks. A tick that carries these bacteria can feed on you and not transmit it, unless you allow it the time to do so. Therefore, it's important to remove the tick properly and as soon as possible.
Your furry companions can bring ticks home to you too, so always apply flea and tick preventative to your dog or cat — especially if you live in an area known to have abundant ticks. Some areas don't get cold enough during the winter so veterinarians recommend year-round flea and tick preventative for animals. Remember, animals can contract tick-borne diseases just like we can. Your veterinarian can test and treat them if they do.
And let’s not forget that removing a tick properly can be tricky. There's a bit of an ick factor in the whole process, but knowing the details is crucial to lowering your risk of contracting the disease. Avid outdoorsmen have likely had run-ins with ticks while out adventuring, and many people in the outdoor recreation community have learned dangerous ways to remove ticks. Tick removal myths include applying heat, Vaseline, nail polish, or alcohol to the tick with the goal of forcing the tick to detach on its own. This gives the tick a longer opportunity to transmit the disease to you. The CDC recommends that you do not attempt these methods of removal. Instead, remove ticks by grabbing it with fine-tipped tweezers as close to the skin as possible. Do not squeeze the tick anywhere other than the head and/or mouth parts if you can help it. Sometimes the mouthparts break off in the process and remain under your skin. If this happens, let your body push them out and don't do any digging on your own. After you've successfully removed the tick, clean the area with soap, water, and rubbing alcohol.
Avoiding Tick Bites
Avoiding ticks entirely would require you to either never venture outside or move to the arctic tundra. The best way to enjoy the fresh air and your favorite hiking trails while protecting yourself from ticks is to use tick repellant. There are many pesticides on the market that will do the job, but if you're trying to avoid chemicals you can often find natural repellents sold side-by-side with cheap chemical formulas using a chemical called DEET. Cedar oil, citronella, lemongrass, and eucalyptus are a few ingredients you'll often find in natural repellants. You can also buy these essential oils and make your own blend!
Another prevention tip involves your own hair! Some hikers on the Appalachian Trail (where ticks carrying Lyme Disease thrive) shave their heads, body, and facial hair before and during their trek. This makes picking up ticks harder and checking for them much easier. This is probably only an option for the most intrepid adventurers, but you should always check your skin and clothing for ticks after engaging in outdoor activities where ticks are known to be present.
Treating Lyme Disease Naturally
Although antibiotics are the most efficient way to treat Lyme Disease, treatment shouldn't end there. Remember, Lyme Disease is caused by bacteria. Bacteria can be crafty creatures who learn to protect themselves from antibacterial agents by creating and hiding in biofilm. The complicated dynamic of bacterial resistance to antibiotics is bringing more attention to natural remedies.
One unlikely helper is Stevia
Not only is it a great natural substitute for sugar, it is also showing some potential for treating Lyme Disease. A 2015 study published in the European Journal of Microbiology & Immunology stated that Stevia extract was demonstrated to be effective in the treatment of Lyme Disease. The phytochemicals this sweet leaf uses to protect itself from pathogens is effective in killing the bacteria in its different forms. In the study, they compared Stevia to three different antibiotics typically used in treating Lyme Disease. Incredibly, the results showed that Stevia was comparable to antibiotics. Amazing, right?
Lower Your Inflammatory Load
Your body will need some help treating symptoms, inflammation, and imbalances caused by medication. How about a natural immune system boost? The best way to take a natural approach to treating Lyme Disease is to kick your immune system into overdrive while reducing inflammation. Add foods and herbs that you would use when you're trying to avoid a cold, such as garlic and echinacea.
It's a vicious cycle — our immune system does a great job protecting us from pathogens using inflammation, but chronic inflammation will exacerbate symptoms. Taking a curcumin supplement for its anti-inflammatory benefits can alleviate the inflammation that can lead to joint pain, headaches, and other inflammation symptoms from Lyme Disease.
Keep Your Gut Balance Healthy
Establishing and maintaining a gut healthy microbiome, especially after taking antibiotics, is also crucial for immune health. Many of the little creatures in your gut are wiped out by antibiotics and can be reestablished by eating fermented foods or taking a hearty probiotic supplement. When tackling the job of arming your immune system, make sure you start where all the action is, in the gut.
Enjoy the great outdoors this summer, but do beware of the potential dangers from deer ticks. Prevention is always best.