How to Recognize a Deer Tick and Protect Yourself Against Lyme Disease

Photographer: James Gathany
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Photographer: James Gathany

Lyme disease symptoms

Stage 1 symptoms of Lyme disease (usually occur within a month)

  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Lack of energy
  • Achy joints or muscles
  • Rash that resembles a bull's-eye (an estimated 70%  to 85% will get a rash)

Stage 2 symptoms of Lyme disease (one to four months)

  • Tiredness
  • Additional rashes
  • Pain, weakness or numbness in the arms or legs
  • Paralysis of nerves in the face
  • Recurring headaches or fainting
  • Poor memory, inability to concentrate
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Occasional rapid heartbeats

Stage 3 symptoms of Lyme Disease (several months or years)

  • Joint swelling, especially the knees
  • Numbness and tingling in hands, feet or back
  • Severe fatigue
  • Neurologic changes
  • Chronic Lyme arthritis

Lyme disease is easily treated in the early stages with antibiotics, which are also used to treat later stages of the disease. There used to be a vaccine available, but it was taken off the market in 2002, supposedly because there wasn’t enough demand.

Testing for Lyme disease

Some individuals, including Bob Maurais, believe that you shouldn't wait if you suspect a tick-borne infection. "If you remove and positively identify the tick as a deer tick, seek out a physician who will begin antibiotics," he urges. "Don't wait for the results of blood work that is oftentimes not accurate."

That's what happened to Michael Anderson. In 2008, he saw his doctor because he thought he had the flu. Then one night his lower back felt itchy and when he looked in the mirror he saw a round rash circling a deer tick. "I went back to my doctor and he didn't really think it was Lyme disease. He ran the local lab Lyme test, which was negative. So I took his word."

Michael was eventually treated, but now has chronic Lyme disease. You can read more about his story in my blog post, One Man's Ongoing Struggle with Lyme Disease.

I don't know exactly what blood test Michael had initially, but the CDC currently recommends a two-step process when testing blood for evidence of Lyme disease antibodies.

  1. The first step uses a testing procedure called “EIA” (enzyme immunoassay) or rarely, an “IFA” (indirect immunofluorescence assay).
    • If this first step is negative, no further testing of the specimen is recommended.
    • If the first step is positive or indeterminate (sometimes called "equivocal"), the second step should be performed.
  2. The second step uses a test called an immunoblot test, commonly, a “Western blot” test.

Results are considered positive only if the EIA/IFA and the immunoblot are both positive. The two steps of Lyme disease testing are designed to be done together. CDC does not recommend skipping the first test and just doing the Western blot. Doing so will increase the frequency of false positive results and may lead to misdiagnosis and improper treatment.

Tick emergency preparedness

In the words of Ben Franklin, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." That includes trying to protect yourself against ticks in the first place.

  • Try to avoid known tick-infested areas and if you can't, plan activities for hottest, driest part of the day.
  • Wear light-colored clothing.
  • Wear long pants tucked into socks or boots and tuck shirt into pants.
  • Don't wear open-toed shoes or sandals in areas that may harbor ticks.
  • Consider using a tick repellent. For more information, read this insect repellent fact sheet.
  •  Check yourself over carefully after you've been outdoors and make sure to look under your arms, behind the knees, between the legs, in and around the ears, in the belly button and in the hair.

Bob Maurais points out that you don't have to be hiking the Appalachian Trail to come head to head with a deer tick. Most likely it'll happen right in your own back yard. "It's estimated that 75 percent of Lyme disease cases are contracted within 100 feet of the house," he says.

Clayton Douglass says he hasn't found anything yet that does a good job of repelling ticks. "I do use DEET," he says, "but I think it only cuts down on the numbers of them I find. A couple of years ago I went deer hunting off the Webb Road in Windham. When I got back to my truck, I started picking off little black deer ticks. I counted over thirty of them! I've heard people say that part of the problem is people don't burn their fields like they used to 40-50 years ago. I don't know the answer. DDT used to kill a lot of them, but I'm still glad they stopped spraying that stuff around. I see a lot of eagles now. I'll deal with the ticks to enjoy that sight!"

Do you have any advice to share?

Have you found a way to protect yourself against ticks or have you had experienced Lyme disease and have some important information to share?  

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