Outdoor Appreciation: Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know (And Some Stuff You Maybe Didn’t) About Tick Safety

Now is the time to take advantage of the great outdoors… armed with bug spray and knowledge

There are few things that make me feel more centered than being out in nature. Besides running and making art, a heart-pounding, leg-busting hike is the only thing that effectively washes the (often obsessive) thoughts from my brain, replacing them with thoughtful calm. Hiking is my meditation, one foot in front of the other. Fresh air rushes in. I can finally think clearly, if I want to think at all. The communion between myself and the trees offering quiet truth, a reminder of my connection to the natural world while I spend most of my time in a concrete jungle. For most of my life, the woods and nature were, well, second nature. Exploring came without fear, my friends and I marauding the deep woods that surrounded my family home, learning the paths and trails and mossy groves like the back our hands. But as I moved — figuratively and quite literally — farther and farther away from that wild, untamed life, I noticed a shift taking place in my psyche. As much as I craved the woods and that natural connection, my mind began to turn more and more to all that could go wrong. Injuries, animals, dangerous people — I’m still uncomfortable hiking alone — and fear of all fears: Ticks.

Now, this particular fear isn’t entirely unfounded, I’ve seen the effects of Lyme and other tick-borne illness firsthand on several people close to me — it’s an inevitability when you’re from New England, especially the Maine woods — but I’m also no dummy. Deeply seated in my brain is the knowledge of how to dress and how to check myself for those disgusting little bugs once I return from my adventure (“Want to check each other for ticks?” is almost a pick-up line where I’m from. Sexy, huh?). Yet, that doesn’t keep me from fretting and worrying and thinking worst-case-scenario, especially when awareness is heightened across the media around diseases like Lyme. They’re scary, for sure, but largely preventable in the states, so long as you arm yourself with knowledge (and long pants and bug spray) and take the right precautions. And as they say, knowledge is power. Armed with the right information, an adventure in the woods can go from terrifying-death-from-horrible-disease-or-bears to, you know, a fun day spent outside enjoying the wilderness.

With tales of skyrocketing cases of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses filling the news, I sought clarity from my friend, fellow former Mainer, and Emergency Medical Resident, Dr. KC Root. “Having grown up on a farm in Maine, I have some personal as well as professional experience in this department,” says KC “the best resource people can use for general information, frequently asked questions, tips and instructions is the CDC website.”

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She goes on to explain, “But there are a couple of things that are really important for everyone to know about ticks and tick bites:

1. Tick bites are an increasing problem for us in the U.S., and it makes a lot of people very nervous. To be honest, it should make us a little nervous, but it’s also important to know that with knowledge and a game plan, it doesn’t have to be so scary!

2. There are many types of ticks, and many types of tick borne illnesses. The primary concern for most seems to be Lyme, but everyone who spends time outside should pay attention to any type of illness or symptoms — including muscle aches and pains, fevers, or rashes –developing within a few weeks of having been bitten by a tick.

3. We have excellent treatments for many of these tick borne illnesses, and most of those diagnosed, if treated in the early stages, will have a complete recovery!”

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My personal strategy for preventing tick bites is to always wear long pants tucked into my socks (not cute, but effective) while out on the trail — a strategy that KC recommends below — and I always check my clothes and body over — especially my hair — as soon as I return home, throwing all my clothes in a hot wash and dry cycle immediately and throwing myself into a hot shower.

“Obviously, the most fool proof way is to avoid environments with lots of ticks… that said, even if you do steer clear, you can’t guarantee that your beloved pet or outdoorsy best friend won’t bring them home to you. So, even if you’re militant with prevention, do make sure to keep an eye out for them! The best way to avoid tick bites, if you are in a heavily tick-laden environment such as the woods, yards, or fields with long grass and lots of leaves, is to wear long pants and sleeves, keep your feet covered as well, and as silly as it might sound, I always found it helped to tuck my pant legs into my socks! And be sure to walk in the middle of trails. You also can use any number of EPA approved DEET repellents (usually 20-30% is recommended) or use permethrin (a synthetic chemical created from natural extracts of the chrysanthemum flower) treated clothing if you’re going to be in the deep woods or on the trail for a longer period of time, say, if you were through-hiking.”

If the idea of DEET turns you off — and I don’t blame you, as KC explains below, there are other options…

“But if you prefer not to use it, a 2015 study published in the Journal of Insect Science showed that using Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus repellent worked similarly well at the time of application, and possibly even better at 4 hours. It would be important however to pay attention to how often it needs to be reapplied, and important to know this study has not been reproduced. To be honest, I’m leaving tomorrow for Belize, an area with endemic Zika, and I will certainly be planning to use DEET. To me, the risk is high enough – especially at his stage of my life – that I want to be sure to be as protected as possible.”

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As KC mentioned above, it’s just as important to keep dogs, cats, and other companion animals safe and free from ticks, not only for our safety, but theirs as well. Cats and dogs are just as susceptible to Lyme and other diseases, so be sure to brush them often with a fine brush or comb, check them over by running your hands through their fur (my guess is you already do this anyway), use tick and flea collars and medicines if you live in an especially prolific area, and be sure to bring them to the vet immediately if you see any signs of illness.

So what to do if you took the recommended precautions, went hiking, and later found a tick… Even as someone who’s seen this before, instinct says I should freak out and assume I have Lyme disease…

“First, don’t freak out! Generally speaking, a tick must be “attached” for at least 24 hours to spread the disease” explains KC. “You can use a special tick removing device, or a set of fine tweezers — yes, I have used my eyebrow tweezers before – just clean them with alcohol after! Place the tweezers as close to the skin as possible without pulling the skin, and pull briskly and upward at a 90 degree angle to the skin with twisting or cranking as you can accidentally leave part of the tick in there (gross, but true). If this does happen, do your best to remove those parts, but if you cannot, leave the area alone and the skin will heal. If you begin to notice significant pain, swelling, worsening redness, or discharge at that area however, do plan to see a doctor in case you have have developed an infection. After removing the tick, clean the area with soap and water, or alcohol. Dispose of the tick by placing in a bath of alcohol, sealing in a plastic bag, or flushing down the toilet. Also, please do not try and use other methods that many have heard about (including burning the tick, petroleum jelly, nail polish, or salt) as the most critical thing is to remove the tick as soon as possible.”

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“You do not need to be immediately seen by a doctor unless you begin to develop any of the following symptoms: rash (oftentimes, but not always, a bullseye-shaped rash at the site of the bite or elsewhere), fever or chills, muscle aching or weakness, headaches, or confusion/altered mental status. If you develop any of these within a few weeks of having a tick bite, you should see your doctor, or go to the Emergency Department, as soon as possible in case you need to be treated with antibiotics. Again, remember depending on your geographic location, there are tick borne diseases that are different than Lyme, but can be potentially serious, so do keep an eye out for the above mentioned symptoms.”

“Also, as a physician, know that your concerns are never a bother – especially with regard to these questions – so do not be afraid to call if there is anything worrying you, or if you have questions that you cannot find an answer to.”

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We know this is a lot to take in, but the more you know, the more power you have to stay safe and have the best time ever. KC closes with some sound advice as we go into the summer season: “Be happy, have fun, take care of yourself! Be aware, listen to your body, but try not to be too nervous. Lastly, if you don’t have a primary care doctor, get one! That way, you’ll always have someone who knows you, and someone you can feel comfortable asking questions of. As doctors, we love and worry about you too, so ask us questions and let us know if something is worrying you! Especially if you’re pregnant, thinking about it, or actively trying.”

“Also, use your resources! There is A LOT of misinformation out there. I highly recommend looking at the World Health Organization’s website, the CDC, and Mayo Clinic for some of the more reliable information.”

Thank you Dr. Root!

You can follow KC on Instagram here

Follow FPJulie on Instagram and check out her blog

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4 years ago

Thank you for writing this! My husband got Lyme Disease about 5 years ago & it’s effects have been pretty devastating to our family. He has gotten treatment & is doing well but the more people know about this & get checked out if they do get bitten the better off!!

4 years ago

This is a very good article. I found no misinformation in here. The treatments for Lyme Disease are still very poor and the tests aren’t completely reliable. But more and more research is being done and more doctors know about Lyme. I have chronic Lyme Disease (slowly recovering) and still like to go out in the woods. Thank you for sharing tips about preventing possible tick bites! I know how necessary it is.
Greetings from The Netherlands