Lately, Lyme disease and other tick borne infections have been getting a lot of attention in the press. Tick populations and tick borne infections are on the rise, and while it used to be mainly a concern in the NE United States, ticks carrying harmful infections are now present on the West side of the Cascade mountains as well. This blog post is intended to provide helpful information on preventing tick bites, safe removal methods, tick testing resources, and post bite treatment. As a life long outdoor enthusiast, valley resident, and chronic illness specialist, I hope to provide the tools to reduce risk and increase knowledge on how to proceed when they are exposed to tick borne infections.
PREVENTION: Ticks live in wooded, brushy, or grassy habitat. They can be anywhere from <1mm, to 3.5 cm in size, and their eight legs allow them to climb tall grasses and jump with ease onto their host. Our best bet for avoiding them at home is to keep the landscape around our living area maintained with grass and shrubs trimmed.
If you are working or recreating in rural and wilderness areas, wear long sleeves, pants, and shoes with socks. Pale colors are recommended, so that the tiny, dark body of the tick shows up easily against them. Tucking pant legs into socks or boots prevents ticks from climbing up under the cuff. After spending time in tick habitat, make sure to check your skin for signs of ticks or rashes, including hard to see areas. Ticks prefer to climb up and lodge in areas like the crease behind the knees or at the thigh/hip joint, or areas with denser hair like pubic regions or beards. They are extremely skilled at finding places they won’t be easily detected. Also check your household pets, as they can jump from your pet to you!
There are many bug repellents that are effective against ticks. Some natural ones that I recommend include All Terrain Herbal Armour, Cedarcide, and Tick Tock Naturals. Make sure to read the label and apply as directed, including following recommended cautions if you are pregnant, nursing, elderly, very young, or have nerve, liver, or kidney dysfunction.
REMOVAL: When ticks bite, they burrow their head into our skin, and the goal is to get it to release without breaking off any mouth parts. Removing the entire tick is important! There are many methods to remove, but the tweezer method is the most effective and recommended to avoid damage to you, or to the tick. Grip the tick with tweezers close to where it is attached. Apply gentle and consistent pressure, drawing away from the skin. Do not twist or yank. Twisting or yanking will break off pieces of the tick, or cause it to release more saliva and increase the risk of tick borne infection.
TICK TESTING: Once you have removed the tick, it can be sent in for testing to see if it is a carrier for infectious diseases. This is still the most accurate test for determining exposure, and offers more reliable results than any test currently used by health providers on patients after a tick bite. Place the whole tick in a small, sealable plastic baggie with a damp (not dripping) 1” square of paper towel. Place the sealed baggie in an envelope. Before mailing, make sure to include your location information, including return address. There are many places that do testing, and most charge a small fee to cover the costs of the test. Contact your lab of choice to learn more about any associated fees. Make sure that they are a lab that tests for infectious diseases, and not just identifies the species of tick. My favorite lab for this is the University of Massachusetts. Samples for them can be mailed to: Laboratory of Medical Zoology; Fernald Hall; UMass; 270 Stockbridge Rd; Amherst, MA 01003.
SEEK TREATMENT: If you have been bitten by a tick, don’t wait for a rash to form or to get the tick testing results before seeking medical treatment. Treatment is most effective when it is started immediately after exposure. The familiar bulls-eye rash doesn’t form in up to 30% of people that have contracted Lyme disease. Some people develop headache, joint pain, and fever instead of or in addition to a rash. Other people don’t have any symptoms, but still need the treatment! Plus, there are additional tick borne-infections that don’t have the rash and still need to be treated. The standard preventative treatment after being bitten by a tick is antibiotics, and it is very important to receive this therapy. See your health care provider to receive a prescription for the antibiotic that is most appropriate for you. I also recommend following any course of antibiotic treatment with a gut healing protocol. If you do not have one you prefer, consult with a licensed naturopathic physician for a post-antibiotics gut restoration treatment.
Lyme disease and other tick borne infections are difficult to diagnose and treat if they are left unattended, so it is important to prevent exposure when possible, and seek early treatment if you suspect you have been bitten. More information on this topic can be found on the Washington State DOH website. As usual, this blog post is for general information purposes only, and is not a substitute for personalized medical care. Please see your licensed health care provider, or make an appointment with me to receive treatment if you have been exposed to Lyme and other tick borne infections.