Adventure and exploration are inevitably paired with a number of hazards. Ticks are a very small danger that carry very large consequences. However, with the right level of knowledge and preparation, the risk of tick-borne diseases can be minimized or even avoided altogether.
Most people know ticks carry harmful and even potentially fatal diseases. If you're planning on exploring the wilderness, it can be helpful to know which tick-borne diseases are common, the symptoms they cause and how they're treated.
Lyme disease is perhaps the most well-known tick-borne disease. It is the most common tick-borne disease in the United States, affecting around 300,000 people per year. Ticks that carry Lyme disease are found primarily in the Upper Midwest and the northeastern U.S. Lyme disease attacks your nervous system and causes fever, chills, a headache and joint pain.
In many cases, patients with Lyme disease get a rash at the site of the tick bite anywhere from three days to a month after they're bitten. As the rash grows, the middle will clear, leaving a red ring around the bite. This rash presents in around 60% of cases. Lyme disease can be prevented with an antibiotic if taken within 72 hours of the bite. If someone does get the disease, however, a longer course of antibiotics is needed.
Around 3,000 people in the United States get Rocky Mountain spotted fever every year. Symptoms such as headaches, fever, vomiting, sore muscles and stomach pain typically show up between two days and two weeks after the tick bite. An antibiotic called doxycycline is used for treatment and should be taken as quickly as possible after the onset of symptoms. Ticks that carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever live all over the U.S., but they are most commonly found in the Midwest and the Southeast.
Other tick-borne diseases include anaplasmosis, tularemia, babesiosis and ehrlichiosis. Symptoms of these diseases range from headaches, fever, a cough, vomiting and muscle aches to confusion, a rash, loss of coordination and seizures. Many of these diseases are treated with an antibiotic. If you believe you may have been bitten by a tick and experience any of these symptoms, be sure to see a doctor right away.
Deer Tick - Common in the Upper Midwest and eastern U.S. Carries Lyme disease, babesiosis & Powassan.
Dog Tick - Common in the eastern U.S. Carries Rocky Mountain spotted fever & tularemia.
Brown Dog Tick - Common in the southern U.S. Carries Rocky Mountain spotted fever, babesiosis & ehrlichiosis.
Lone Star Tick - Common in the Northeast and Midwest. Carries ehrlichiosis.
Gulf Coast Tick - Common near the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico. Carries Rickettsia.
Rocky Mountain Wood Tick - Common in the Rocky Mountains. Carries Rocky Mountain spotted fever & tularemia.
The easiest way to prevent tick bites is simply to stay inside. This is not the right way to think about ticks, though. Exploring the outdoors always comes with the risk of danger, and the best thing to do is not to hide from those dangers but to minimize their risks. That said, there are some precautions to take both before and after heading into the wilderness.
Before you even head outside, there are some vital steps to take that can help prevent tick bites. Ticks are often very small (as small as a poppy seed in some cases), and wearing light-colored clothing can help you to see ticks you may not otherwise see on darker clothes. It also helps to cover as much of your body as possible with clothing, but this can be difficult if temperatures are high. When you do get into the woods, stick to the center of the trails as much as possible — ticks tend to get on your clothing and skin when you brush up against leaves and bushes.
After returning from your trip, it is wise to check your clothes and skin for ticks. Ticks can also get in your car, on your gear or on your pet's fur, so be sure to check those thoroughly as well. If you brought along a backpack, be sure to examine every flap, pocket and compartment to make sure you didn't accidentally track any ticks into your home.
Permethrin is an essential tool for the prevention of tick bites. It is a spray solution that is non-toxic to humans, but kills ticks by attacking them on a neurological level. Permethrin is not like an insect repellent; you spray it on your equipment instead of spraying it on your skin. Its benefits for tick protection cannot be overstated.
To start, spray permethrin on your footwear. Ticks often come up from the ground, latch onto footwear and make their way up the rest of the body. Spraying permethrin on your footwear will kill ticks before they even have the opportunity to reach the rest of your body.
Next, spray any clothing you plan to wear on your trip. While spraying your shoes takes care of ticks that latch on from the ground, ticks also attach from trees and bushes. Wearing clothes treated with permethrin will kill any ticks that try to crawl on your shirt or pants.
Finally, spray any gear you plan to bring along with you, like a backpack or a tent. Unlike most insect repellents that can ruin plastic or nylon, permethrin won't damage your gear and will still prevent ticks from getting in.
Some companies manufacture clothing that is pretreated with permethrin. Other companies offer you the opportunity to send in your clothing to be treated. You can also buy commercially produced permethrin sprays, but perhaps the easiest, most cost-effective option is to make your own permethrin solution and treat your clothing yourself.
The best way to do this is to buy a 10% permethrin concentrate. You'll want to dilute your solution down to 0.5% permethrin. This means creating a solution that is 19 parts water, 1 part permethrin.
For instance, if you wanted to make a gallon (128 oz.) of 0.5% permethrin solution, 19 parts, or 121.6 oz. (128 x 0.95) of the gallon would contain water, and the other 6.4 oz. (128 x 0.05) would contain the 10% permethrin concentrate. You can adapt this formula to your needs, but it is best to create a large amount to divide up later into smaller, carry-friendly spray bottles.
Note: Be sure to triple-check your math so as not to end up with too much or too little permethrin.
Don't spray permethrin on your skin
Don't spray permethrin on underwear; spray it on outwear only
Spray your clothes while you aren't wearing them
Don't overspray or under spray — your clothes should be damp but not drenched
Let clothes dry completely before wearing them
Re-treat your clothing when necessary — typically after 4-6 washes
Treat tents, backpacks, sleeping bags and other gear for your trip
Permethrin is harmful to cats and can kill them when it's wet. After your clothing and equipment dry, they are safe to handle around cats again.
While permethrin is an excellent tool for keeping ticks at bay, it is wise to use additional protection against ticks as well. You should treat yourself with insect repellent in case ticks do manage to find their way onto your exposed skin.
The best insect repellents to use are made with either 20% Picaridin or 30% DEET (diethyltoluamide). These are the active ingredients that repel ticks, mosquitoes, fleas, chiggers and other biting insects. It is important to understand that Picaridin and DEET do not kill insects; they simply repel them. Do not use the repellents on your gear. They will corrode plastic, nylon, waterproof tent flys, rain jackets, etc. Permethrin is for use on your clothing/gear and repellents are for use on your skin.
Even after taking multiple preventive measures, you'll still need to check your body for ticks after you've been outdoors. It's vital to catch tick bites early, so make sure to do once-overs often when you're still on the trails or at your campsite. Run your fingers through your hair, check the back of your neck, check your clothing, shoes and gear.
After you get home, do a more detailed review. Remove your clothing and check your scalp, ears, crotch, feet, etc. Ticks like to hide in the folds of the body, so check your armpits and the backs of your knees. Be sure to look very thoroughly — some ticks (namely deer ticks) are very, very small and are often mistaken for a blemish or a freckle. Be sure to check your entire body. It will be helpful to have a mirror handy to see parts of your body you otherwise couldn't. It's also helpful to have someone you know help with your check.
After you've examined yourself, change out of your outdoor clothes. Ticks on clothing can be very hard to see, so look through your shirts, pants and underwear to make sure there are no ticks hiding there. When you wash your dirty clothes, be sure to wash them in hot water if their washing instructions permit it. Hot water kills ticks, but cool or warm water may not do the trick. If you have clothing you brought on your trip but didn't wear, throw it in the dryer on high heat for 10 minutes anyway. This will help to kill any ticks you may have missed.
Sometimes, despite taking every preventative measure possible, a tick bite is simply inevitable. If you get bitten, it is vital to remove the tick correctly. You'll need two things: tweezers with a very fine point (or a tick key specifically designed to remove ticks) and rubbing alcohol (or soapy water if you don't have rubbing alcohol handy). Here's how to proceed:
Clean the area around the bite with rubbing alcohol
Get your tweezers as close to the skin as possible and grab the tick's head
Pull slowly and firmly without jerking or twisting and remove the tick. This can cause the tick's mouth to remain lodged in the skin. Note: be very careful not to crush the tick
Clean the area again and wash your hands with soap and water
It is a good idea to take a picture of the tick in case you develop symptoms later on. The picture can provide important information to a medical professional. After you've removed the tick, it is important to dispose of it correctly. Here's how:
If you can't flush it, wrap it in tape and throw it out
Even after removing a tick, it is important not to crush it. This could expose you to a disease if you haven't been exposed already. After removal, keep an eye out for potential disease symptoms. If you experience headaches, vomiting, joint pain, fever, chills, stomach pain or any other symptoms that are out of the ordinary, see your doctor and bring along the picture you took of the tick. These symptoms can come on anywhere from three days to a month after a bite, so stay vigilant.
Ticks are very small, but they can cause a lot of damage if they're not removed quickly and correctly. Be sure to take precautions when venturing out. Use permethrin on your clothing and insect repellent on your skin. Make sure to check yourself thoroughly and often, and if you get bitten by a tick, be careful when removing it. Keep an eye on any possible symptoms and contact your doctor if you develop any. Most importantly, don't let ticks deter you from enjoying the outdoors. As long as you have the right preventative knowledge and the ability to deal with a tick bite properly, you'll be just fine.
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