Ticked Off: Protect Yourself from Lyme Disease

Lyme disease is one of the fastest-growing vector-borne diseases in North America for humans.

In the U.S, the CDC has upped their estimate of new yearly cases to 476,000 from 300,000. In Canada, the estimates are anywhere from 300 to 3,000. However, many people in Canada are diagnosed out of the country, leading to underreported cases. However, over the past decade, organizations such as the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation have been making strides to educate about this harmful and often neglected disease. Testing and treatment standards are starting to improve.

Lyme disease humans: sign warning of ticks in grassy area with hikers in background

Keep to clear trails when possible and avoid the underbrush to avoid ticks. Photo: Heiko Barth via Shutterstock

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Why Should I Be Concerned?

Lyme Disease has more than 75 possible symptoms ranging from rashes and fevers to arthritis, peripheral and central nervous system disorders, and heart conditions such as arrhythmia and tachycardia.

Every system and organ of the human body can be targeted by Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Borrelia is a spirochete bacteria similar to syphilis, which may make it very difficult to treat. Furthermore, at least three co-infections afflict many Lyme sufferers, intensifying the debilitating effects of the disease.

The Lyme bacteria is now reportedly found almost everywhere in North America and many parts of Europe. The European version of the bacteria is slightly different, making it more difficult to diagnose if you are being tested in North America.

What Should I Look Out For?

You can take many steps to protect yourself, your family, and your pets from this crippling disease. The first line of defense is to know the life cycle of the black-legged tick, what they look like, and where they’re hiding.

The black-legged deer tick is the most common carrier of Lyme disease. But there are 9 species of ticks, many of which can cause illness and carry Lyme. Some examples of other ticks to watch out for are the lone star tick, the rocky mountain tick, and the Ixodes angustus.

The black-legged tick’s most active season is January to November in the most endemic regions. You can see which ticks perforate in your area via this U.S field guide map.

The nymph stage begins around May and ends in July or August. Apparently, this is the first stage they can transmit the disease. This stage is also the most dangerous because they are difficult to detect. No bigger than a poppy seed, the nymph is on the ground under leaves and dead grass waiting for an unsuspecting host in which to attach itself.  They crawl from the ground up and love shady, damp areas with dead leaves, brush, and woodpiles. Thus, if you keep these areas cleared, it will help with early season prevention.

Adult ticks are found on tall grasses, shrubs, and thickets from July to November. However, they are also active from January to April in many regions. They’re opportunists, waiting for a host to brush past so they can hitch a ride for a blood meal.

Read More: How to Be Prepared for Tick Season

black legged tick (deer tick) on a leaf

Keep an eye out for the deer tick! Photo: Erik Karits from Pixabay

How Can I Protect Myself?

In addition to knowing the life cycle, timing, and location, humans can take a few other steps to reduce our risk of contracting Lyme disease.

Dress Appropriately

Wear a light-colored, long sleeve shirt, long pants, and a hat. The light color will help you see the tick. The shirt should be tight at the wrists, and pants should be tucked into long socks. Not the most stylish look, but it’ll go a long way to protecting you.

Garden gloves are essential if you’re working on plant debris. Also, a sticky lint roller used after possible exposure is good to have on hand to use on your clothes intermittently. Take a shower within a couple of hours of possible exposure. But understand an attached tick should not be scrubbed off. See below for steps to remove a tick.

Check Your Steps and Yourself

Keep to cleared trails and avoid thick underbrush while hiking whenever possible.

Ticks can be brought in on your pets or your clothing. So give yourself and your pets a thorough, full-body check every day. If on your clothing, toss your clothes in the dryer on high heat for 10 minutes to kill any remaining ticks.

infographic of tick safety tips

Keep these tips in mind to stay safe. Photo: Double Brain via Shutterstock

Bring Insect Repellent

As someone who has suffered from Lyme Disease, I use the added security of an insect repellent. So far, permethrin, like Sawyer Permethrin Spray, is the most effective for killing ticks on contact. Moreover, it’s less toxic than DEET as it’s not for your skin.

Spray your footwear once a month for the duration of the season. Outer clothing sprayed or soaked in it and left to dry before wearing will last through many washes. Spray the outside of your tents, backpacks, and any other materials that could come in contact with ticks.  Permethrin is also used on dogs but, unfortunately, is toxic to cats. It is a neurotoxin but is purported to be safe for humans at the rate needed to repel or kill ticks and prevent Lyme disease.

I have yet to find an all-natural repellent with a proven track record like permethrin, but I’m still looking. If you are aware of one, let us know. I’d love NOT to have to use toxic chemicals. You could try this all-natural repellent from Ticks N All, but I have not personally tested it, nor is there any reference to its proven effectiveness.

Read More: How to Protect Against Mosquitos: Tips for Staying Safe

Remove a Tick Safely

It can take up to two hours for a tick to embed itself fully. But if you do find an attached tick, you must use the appropriate removal method.

It can take 24 to 48 hours to be infected, but to be safe, take yourself and the tick to the nearest clinic or hospital. The tick should be sent away to be tested for the Borrelia bacteria. A round of antibiotics should be prescribed as a precaution, particularly if you don’t know how long the tick was attached to you.

You need a small pair of tweezers to remove the tick, or you can purchase a tick twist stick. The video below provides a helpful tutorial for tick removal.

More Information

By far, the most comprehensive site I’ve found on info to protect yourself is Tick Encounter. However, you can also find information at the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Are you familiar with Lyme disease? What tips do you have to prevent Lyme disease in humans? Please share your thoughts with us below.

This article was originally published on July 1, 2014. Susan Wowk most recently updated it on June 15, 2021. 

Read Next: Getting Back on Track: Lyme Disease Recovery

About the author

Rose Doucet

Rose Doucet is a freelance writer living in New Brunswick, Canada where there is often six months of winter. She enjoys snowshoeing in the woods behind her house, observing nature and tracking wildlife. In the off season you'll find her in the kitchen, her vegetable gardens or swimming in the brook. Contact with nature is a part of Rose's daily routine and has helped shape her outlook on life in general. She
passed on her love of nature to her children and now has a grandson who's already a budding naturalist.

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