With cabin fever strong after an extended period of isolation and with social distancing apt to guide every aspect of our lives for the foreseeable future, Minnesota’s miles upon miles of trails and its numerous parks have been beckoning us for some time.
But hikers and campers beware: June through August is prime tick season and Minnesota is a hot zone for Lyme disease, being one of 14 states that lead the nation each year in number of reported cases.
Blacklegged ticks, also called “deer ticks,” can carry a bacterium that, if you’re bit, can cause infection of Lyme. Not every tick carries the bacteria, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in three adult blacklegged ticks and one in five of the smaller “nymphs” are capable of spreading the disease.
Early signs of Lyme can feel just like the flu: fatigue, chills and fever, headaches, muscle and joint pain and swollen lymph nodes. What is sometimes seen as the characteristic sign of Lyme — the “bullseye” rash — only shows up in about two-thirds of cases. Because of this, along with symptoms that might mimic the flu, the disease can be hard to diagnose at the critical early stage.
“Many people are unaware that they have had Lyme and other vectorborne illness,” said Carol Wentworth and Kelly Voelker, disease response nurses for Carver County Public Health, in a joint response. “A common way some find illness is when they attempt to donate blood.”
Blood tests for Lyme may come back negative within the first two to three weeks of illness since the antibodies for fighting the infection can take “several weeks” to build up, according to the CDC.
“Early recognition of signs and symptoms of Lyme disease is very important for prompt diagnosis and treatment,” say the two county nurses, and early symptoms should prompt a doctor’s visit, especially if you’ve been in tick-friendly areas. Treatment is generally an antibiotic and leads to quick recovery.
But left untreated, the flu-like symptoms of early Lyme can worsen to include arthritic swelling, problems with memory and concentration and effects on the nervous system like numbness, nerve paralysis and meningitis.
“For some people, recovery can be a long and unpleasant road,” said Harland Hiemstra, central region information officer for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Hiemstra also pointed to a rare post-treatment syndrome connected with the disease that can have long-lasting side effects. Still, “With proper precautions, people shouldn’t have much to worry about,” he said.
That seems to be the tack that county health officials are also taking against the tick. Wentworth and Voelker, the disease response nurses at Carver County Public Health, say that basic precautions can go a long way in lessening your chance of contracting Lyme or other tickborne illness.
The two recommend using an EPA-registered product, either DEET-based or containing the pesticide permethrin, on clothing and gear—not skin—and to always follow the manufacturer’s directions.
The DNR’s Hiemstra also offers a tip that, while not the most chic, can go a long way in preventing tick bites: tuck your pants into your socks. Makes sense—ticks are most common in the low-lying vegetation of wooded, brushy areas, say Wentworth and Voelker. “These provide a humid place for ticks, especially along trails and the fringe area between the woods and border.”
Good practice is to check daily for ticks after being in these areas. Transmission of Lyme only happens if a tick has been attached for 36-48 hours, reports the CDC. So if you miss it once, you might still get it in time with the second go-around.
It’s also recommended to shower immediately after getting back indoors. Ticks might look like an innocuous speck of dirt or a freckle, especially the tiny nymphs, and can be hard to spot. They might also burrow into places like the bellybutton, scalp or ear, making them even harder to find.
But taking these precautions goes a long way in helping prevent Lyme disease, so don’t let the tick put you off to the outdoors, says Hiemstra. Just tuck your pants into your socks first.