Silver linings are few and far between when it comes to the pandemic, but if we’re stretching for some positivity, we could say that our inability to spend time with others indoors has forced us to become more active outdoors. This is a boon for our physical and mental health; unless, that is, you get Lyme disease or other tick-borne illnesses as a result of a bite (womp, womp).
Unfortunately, Eva Sapi, PhD a University of New Haven biology professor and group director for the Lyme Disease Research Group, says that tick season (aka, now) may be worse this year due to a relatively mild winter. Complicating matters is the fact that symptoms of Lyme disease can be similar to symptoms of COVID-19. 2020 is fun!
Before you scream inside your heart, take a deep breath (of fresh air, from behind your mask if you’re near others). By being informed and cautious, you can protect yourself. Below Phillip J. Baker, PhD, Executive Director at the American Lyme Disease Foundation offers the 411 on tick prevention, identification, treatment, and more.
Before you head outdoors, take these 2 critical precautions
When spending time outside in regions where ticks reside, Dr. Baker says it’s important to cover as much skin as possible—even when temps are high. He recommends long-sleeved shirts and pants. You may also want to opt for light-colored clothing so that ticks are more visible.
Once you’re outfitted, Dr. Baker advises spraying exposed skin with EPA-registered repellent products that contain at least 20 to 30 percent DEET (the more a product contains, the longer it lasts). Then spray your clothing with product containing permethrin, which binds to cloth fibers and can withstand several washer/dryer cycles.
Once outside, be aware
Ticks like grassy, brushy, and wooded spaces. To best avoid them, stick to trails, opting to stay central on the path, so as not to brush up against tick-containing foliage.
Back at home, conduct a thorough tick check ASAP
Once you’ve returned from your adventure, it’s important to do a careful tick check on your body, paying special attention to the hair line of the scalp and the underarms. (TMI, but I’ve also discovered a tick in my pubic hair region, so be sure to check there, too!)
If you find a tick, don’t panic—but do act
If you find a tick on your clothing, you can tumble dry it on high heat or leave it out in direct sunlight for at least 15 minutes to kill the pests. If you find one on your body, use needle-nose tweezers or a Tick Twister Pro to remove it, pulling upward. This is the most effective method, no matter what your grandma says! Then, clean and disinfect the area and your hands with soap and water or rubbing alcohol.
Now, not every tick carries disease and in fact, the majority don’t—so you don’t need to immediately freak out. The CDC does recommended showering within two hours of coming indoors, however, as it’s been shown to reduce your risk of infection with Lyme disease or other tick-borne illnesses.
You might be able to gauge your risk to some extent just by eyeballing you tick, too. You can’t know if it’s infected, but you can know if it had time to infect you if it is. “An infected tick must be attached and taking a blood meal for 48 to 72 hours in order to transmit Lyme disease to humans,” says Dr. Baker. “By that time, it is very swollen and engorged with blood—it looks more like a ball at that time.” So, if you find a tick within, say, 24 hours of your adventure, and it looks like a normal tick and not a ball, chances are you’re safe. This is why conducting a timely, thorough check after every outing is important.
Stay vigilant after you’ve been bitten
The first symptom of Lyme disease is typically an expanding, or “bull’s-eye”, rash which usually radiates out from the tick bite. On dark skin, it might look more like a bruise. This rash usually appears one to two weeks after exposure and persists for about three to five weeks. Around the time you start to notice the rash, you may also experience chills, joint pain, fever, and fatigue—of varying intensities. If you notice such symptoms, see a doctor. Later symptoms might include stiffness, tingling in the limbs, severe headaches, painful arthritis, and more.
The skinny on Lyme disease
Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne illness in the US, and it’s carried by deer ticks. It’s a complex multi-system inflammatory disease which starts by affecting the skin and then spreads to the joints, nervous system, and other organs. The diagnosis and treatment remains a challenge; however, if caught early enough, Lyme disease can be effectively treated with antibiotics. When it’s not treated early, the illness can become a life-long burden; read about one woman’s battle with chronic Lyme disease here. Lyme disease-carrying ticks are most prevalent in the Northeast and the upper Midwest.
Lyme disease versus COVID-19
As noted earlier, there may be some overlap in symptoms between Lyme disease and COVID-19, especially since the latter can sometimes cause rashes, too. Your best bet is to consult a medical professional who can assess your risk for both and/or administer tests to rule one or both out. If you think you might be at risk, don’t wait.