When going into the woods, you may be more concerned about larger animals, but the real danger comes from one very small creature: ticks.
Backyard Woodland (Countryman Press, 2016) by Josh VanBrakle helps readers to care for and appreciate the woods in their backyard. As the first ever guide of its type for nurturing the land in Americans’ care, this book helps the 10 million Americans that own forestland to give it the attention and care it deserves. In this excerpt, he discusses the dangers of ticks in the woods.
When I hike in my home woods in upstate New York, I’m not concerned about bears or any other large creature. No, the animal I worry about is much, much smaller: the deer tick.
Ticks are blood drinkers. They latch onto a host (that’s you), drink your blood for a few days, and then drop off. They’re tiny (and I do mean tiny; they can be as small as a poppy seed), and what makes them so dangerous are the illnesses they carry inside them. About ten of these illnesses impact people, and the most well-known of these is Lyme disease.
Lyme disease comes from a bacterium that lives inside the tick’s gut. When the tick latches on to you, the bacterium travels up from the gut and into your body.
Fortunately, that travel takes a while. Even though ticks are small, the bacterium that causes Lyme is much smaller. A tick has to be attached to you for at least 36 hours for the Lyme bacterium to enter your body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Now you might think you’d have no trouble spotting a creepy-crawly on your body within 36 hours, but ticks are crafty. With their small size, they’re easily missed, and they often hide in hard-to-check areas like your armpit or groin (are you itchy yet? I’m itchy writing this). There’s also usually no pain associated with the tick bite itself, so you won’t know the tick has latched onto you.
Lyme isn’t fun. Early on, it triggers flulike symptoms: fatigue, chills, fever, and muscle and joint pain. Untreated, it can lead to loss of muscle control in the face, meningitis, arthritis, and severe pain. The disease can sit dormant inside the body for weeks, months, or even years, and then it can explode into full symptoms without warning.
About 30,000 cases of Lyme disease get reported in the United States every year. That number has tripled in the past twenty years. More distressing, only a small fraction of cases get reported. The CDC estimates that the actual incidence of Lyme in the United States is ten times higher than reported, or 300,000 cases annually. That means about one in every thousand Americans gets the disease every year.
Fortunately, Lyme disease doesn’t occur all over the country. Ninety-five percent of reported US Lyme disease cases from just 14 states, all either in the Northeast or in the northern Lake States like Wisconsin and Minnesota.
How do you avoid Lyme disease while still getting out in nature? Here are some tips:
• Wear light-colored clothing, which will make ticks easier to spot.
• Wear boots, long pants, and a long-sleeved shirt. Tuck your pant legs into your socks, and tuck your shirt into your pants.
• Walk in the center of the trail and avoid dense, low brush. Ticks usually cling to tall grass and shrubs that grow no more than two feet off the ground.
• Avoid sitting or lying directly on the ground.
• If you have long hair, keep it tied back.
• Check yourself for ticks often while outdoors.
• Wash and dry clothes right away after wearing them outside. Run the dryer on high heat to kill ticks that may remain on clothing.
• When you get home, shower or bathe as soon as possible to locate and wash off ticks more easily.
• Do a full-body tick check, also at home. Get a family member to help check parts of your body that you may have a difficult time seeing.
If you find a tick on you, the best way to remove it is with a pair of pointed tweezers. Grasp the tick by the head and pull straight out from your body. Don’t twist; that can cause the mouthparts to stay attached to you. Clean the bite area with warm water and soap as well as with a little rubbing alcohol. To dispose of the tick, either submerge it in alcohol or flush it down the toilet. Do not crush it with your fingers.
Even if you find a tick on you, remember that that doesn’t mean you’ll get Lyme. By checking for ticks and removing them promptly, you reduce your chance of getting Lyme to almost zero.
If you missed the tick but still got a bite, or if you aren’t sure how long the tick was on you, you don’t need to panic. Monitor the area of the tick bite for about a month. Look for a rash to develop, especially the characteristic “bulls-eye” rash with a distinct red ring around the bite area. If one appears, contact your doctor right away.
Should you develop Lyme symptoms, early treatment with antibiotics is usually highly effective. Even those who have had Lyme for a while often respond well to antibiotics.
There’s no question that Lyme is a serious illness, and it’s become more common over the past twenty years. Even so, you shouldn’t let fear of ticks keep you from enjoying your woodland. With a few precautions, you can get out and enjoy the forest’s health benefits without worry.
Whether you want to learn how to grow and raise your own food, build your own root cellar, or create a green dream home, come out and learn everything you need to know — and then some!LEARN MORE