Tick-borne illnesses and diseases are on the rise. In fact, according to a recent report, they have tripled in the past 15 years. And with warmer weather upon us, people need to be more vigilant than ever when it comes to tick awareness, prevention, and preparation to keep your family safe.
Perhaps in no realm does the well-known phrase “keep it simple, silly” — or KISS — apply more than the world of tick-borne illnesses. Yet we are continually bombarded with new ways or even a rebirth of old ways to deal with these tiny menaces.
As a mom I get to traipse down grocery store aisles, selecting from hundreds of choices in toothpaste and soap, trying to make the best judgments for my family. In all likelihood, the ingredients barely differ, yet an entire aisle is devoted to a single item, all bright and shiny and screaming “pick me!”
I make these decisions every day, not to mention the truly important ones, like which school my child will attend and which pediatrician best suits our needs. I don’t know about you, momma, but sometimes I get really tired of making decisions. It’s exhausting and overwhelming. Who hasn’t begrudged the age-old question: “What’s for dinner, Mom?” I mean, I just made a thousand little decisions at the grocery store; I don’t care what’s for dinner at the moment. Just help me get these groceries put away. Right?
So when something critical to my family’s health can be kept simple, I am all for it. The world we live in is complicated enough. If I can keep a few things straightforward and uncluttered, especially if those concepts could save the quality of my child’s life, why wouldn’t I make the simplest choice, particularly when it’s also proven to be the most effective?
We can’t declutter the shampoo aisle, but we can streamline our understanding of tick-borne illnesses and how best to prevent them. May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month. With it comes oodles of images, articles and videos that may or may not be accurate. While I appreciate the awareness this month brings, I cringe at the number of myths “liked” and “shared”…as if everything on the Internet is fact.
Nearly four years ago, I was bitten by a tick on my wedding day. I wouldn’t know it until a year later when I shared wedding photos on my blog, but after just six months of marriage, our lives were irrevocably changed. Lyme carditis landed me in the cardiac unit for a week. While my symptoms continued to evolve and test after test was ordered, I had my medical power of attorney and living will drawn up. Since those terrifying weeks, I’ve tried treatment after treatment to combat Lyme disease and multiple co-infections. I am no longer physically able to be in the classroom, which was my passion. Now I focus on learning about this disease and educating others because something good has to come out of all my loss and pain.
Let me help you simplify a small part of your life that could truly become nearly every aspect of your life, if the right steps aren’t taken at the right time. Prevention is largely about awareness and preparation.
Contrary to popular belief, Lyme disease has been diagnosed in every single state. In fact, it is on every continent except Antarctica. So the idea that Lyme is only in those northern states is a dangerous misconception. If you can live wherever you live, it is certain that a deer tick can survive there, too.
But ticks are only a problem in the summer, right? Wrong. According to Larry Dapsis, an entomologist who serves as the coordinator of the Deer Tick Project for the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension, the life cycle of a tick is two years, and they can attach themselves to their next meal at any time. Eggs are laid in the fall, usually around late September, and larvae quickly find their first meal, typically a mouse.
Did you know that a tick needs only three meals its entire lifetime? This initial small meal will last its first winter as it burrows into the leaf litter. On those occasion days of spring-like sunshine when we are apt to frolic outdoors, that tick is reaching its most dangerous age — the nymph stage. Around mid-May the nymph peaks, looking for its next meal — a coyote, a deer, a human. The tick is only the size of a poppy seed. It is smaller than a freckle. This is what we are combating today.
After its second meal, the nymph will become an adult tick and will require one final feast around October. There are many myths about times when it’s “safe” to be outside, but at no point is Mother Nature completely tick-free. Frigid winters do not kill them. Dapsis even points out that “the correlation of deer density to tick density is zero.” After all, the tick can attach to any animal, not just deer. In fact, mice are much more likely carriers.
It may feel like we are fighting a losing battle, but Dapsis emphasizes the importance of education.
“Thanks to the Internet there’s a ton of information available about ticks, Lyme disease, but so much of it is bad information,” Dapsis explains. An extension educator, Dapsis heads a hyper-aggressive outreach program with the theme, “One Bite Can Change Your Life.”
For me, that has certainly been the case.
But it doesn’t have to be for you or your family.
There are a number of things you can do to prevent tick bites, including making your home and head less hospitable for ticks. Also, every family should have a Tick Kit. The contents are simple: a pair of tweezers, alcohol swabs, a couple index cards or Post-it notes, a sharpie, and some clear tape tossed together in a Ziploc bag. That’s it. You probably already have these items in your home, right? But do you know exactly where to find them? If your house is like mine, tweezers seem to disappear periodically only to return two or three at once a few weeks later. Would you have to race to multiple rooms in your house to locate these essentials?
Other prevention tips include:
Know Your Moles
We cuddle and kiss our children everyday, but do you know your child’s every mole? Probably not. Pay attention to your child’s freckles and moles, especially those on his or her head. Ticks love to hide in the scalp, and it can be downright challenging at times to tell the difference between a mole and a tick, particularly if your child has dark hair. So know the locations of moles on the scalp. It’ll save you time when doing daily tick checks.
Give Your Clothes A Spin
Ticks do not hang out in only tall grass and wooded areas. The tick in the photo above hopped onto my daughter on her walk from the vehicle to the house. Her shoes never even touched the grass. Happy to arrive home from a day of school, she walked from the gravel driveway onto the sidewalk and then the porch. To kill ticks that may be hiding on clothing, toss the clothing your child has worn outside into your dryer for 10 minutes.
Shower Every Day
When your child plays outside, always insist he or she take a soapy shower or bath. This will likely remove any ticks that have not yet attached. Remind your child to wash body creases, such as armpits and groin, and to shampoo hair. Teach your child what ticks look like and how to do a thorough tick check.
There’s an abundance of myths out there about how best to remove a tick. From dropping peppermint oil on it to smothering it in Vaseline, it seems everyone has a method. But the bottom line is this: You want to remove the tick as quickly and cleanly as possible.
“Don’t agitate the tick. Don’t put anything on it. The longer it is attached, the increase in chance of transmission. Don’t complicate things. We’re not building a rocket ship. Take away all the old wives’ tales and make science acceptable,” Dapsis says.
This is where the KISS saying is most important. Keep tick removal simple. Use pointy tweezers to grab the tick where it is closest to the skin and pull up. That’s it. My favorite brand, which actually has a pointy end for humans and a slotted scoop for animals, is TickEase. They’re also great for everything from splinters to pimples, and I’m all about having one item that serves multiple purposes.
When the CDC announced that it estimates over 300,000 cases of Lyme disease go undiagnosed each year, several tick-removal tools hit the market. However, many are not only ineffective, but the misinformation produced is outright dangerous.
“You should never twist a tick to remove it,” Dapsis stated. “Grab it with pointy tweezers and simply pull up. If you have a tick in a kid’s ear or the creases of the pelvic area, the devices that encourage twisting are pretty ineffective.”
So why purchase tools with limited effectiveness? Keep it simple. Don’t burn or freeze the tick off. (This is really popular in Australia currently.) Don’t put antifreeze or an essential oil on it and wait for it to die. Speed is important.
We’ve been told for ages that ticks must be attached for 24 hours to transmit any tick-borne diseases. However, even entomologist Dapsis agrees there is some evidence that transmission can occur sooner. “Spirochetes are already in their salivary glands. 24 hours is important. The risk is highly reduced, but some tick-borne illnesses, like the Powassan Virus, are quick.”
We aren’t just combating Lyme disease, even though that seems to be the illness most often discussed. Did you know Tick Paralysis can happen in as little as 15 minutes from the time of the initial bite? This month last year, a friend, who had followed my journey through my blog, messaged me about some strange symptoms her seven-year-old daughter Gracie was exhibiting.
“I’m not sure how long the tick had been attached but within hours, she lost motor control, which fed straight into her losing vision and speech skills,” Gracie’s mom, Erin Freeman of Weston, West Virginia explained. “Proper removal is key. The end point of tick paralysis is death. I credit Jena with still having my daughter.”
Awareness saved Gracie, not me. Her mother taking the time to follow my at-times gut-wrenching story and learning about tick-borne illnesses along the way is what signaled the red flags that resulted in a happy ending.
Again, let’s not complicate what can be simple. Remove the tick quickly and cleanly. I recommend creating tick kits, and having them readily accessible. We keep one in our home and one in each vehicle.
What if you use a regular pair of tweezers and “the head” gets stuck? Dapsis says don’t panic.
“Once you break that away from the saliva, the tick no longer transmits anything. What’s left is like a wood splinter. Put Neosporin on it and wait.” There is no need to rush to the ER and have a med student dig around to remove it. As gross as it may seem, the leftover tick part is no longer dangerous and will work itself out of the affected area.
But pointy tweezers will drastically reduce this risk.
Let’s face it. Ticks are disgusting little creatures, and Lyme disease is a scary result of them. I get that. Only passionate entomologists actually enjoy this subject, but as parents, we don’t have the luxury of avoiding it. We need to be aware of the dangers to our children and know how best to address them.
We don’t need to panic. We don’t need to buy into the myths.
We need to keep it simple. Make a tick kit to be prepared. Include a pair of pointy tweezers. Take preventive measures when outdoors and always check your family for ticks. Don’t neglect crevices.
And, please have someone check your own head for ticks, too. This momma regrets overlooking her own health all those years ago because I was “too busy” running my children everywhere and trying to keep up with life.
After all, life as I knew it ended with an undiscovered tick bite.
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