If there's anything we've learned from Avril Lavigne's openness about her battle with Lyme disease, it's that ticks are not our friend. But there are other lessons to be learned as well: that Lyme disease doesn't have to get serious if it's diagnosed early and properly (which, as we'll discover, is harder than it seems), that there are steps you can take to prevent Lyme disease in the first place, and that insecticides and tweezers are important to carry if you're contemplating camping somewhere risky.
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection transmitted by the bites of ticks, which latch onto humans to feed on blood. The nasty little vampires can be dealt with properly, but you need the know-how. If you're planning on going out for some summer fun in an area known for its tick population, though, I'm here to tell you that you need to leave your short-shorts at home and replace them with long socks. Hey, looking un-glam is much better than suffering through courses of antibiotics.
So here are seven ways to protect yourself from Lyme disease this summer. Note: do read up on what a tick looks like. You'll be embarrassed if you freak out over what turns out to be sesame seeds.
1. Know The Risk Areas
Ticks actually contract their Lyme disease from animals, from birds to livestock, so high-risk Lyme areas include forests, heavy vegetation, grazing places, woodland, moors, anywhere with big deer populations, and places where trees meet open ground. The prime time for Lyme disease infections is late spring to early autumn, when people are spending the most time in the wilderness hiking, camping, or doing other outdoor pursuits.
It's also concentrated heavily in one particular area of the U.S.: the northeast and upper Midwest. The Center for Disease Control And Prevention found that a whopping 96 percent of all Lyme disease diagnoses in 2014 came from a fraction of states, all grouped together in the upper western corner: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Know the relative vulnerability of your state or holiday destination to Lyme disease and plan accordingly.
2. Be Aware Of The Bulls-Eye Rash
One in three people who've contracted Lyme disease from a tick bite will have a fairly obvious symptom in the first stage of infection: a rash surrounding the bite in a distinctive pattern. It's known as a "bulls-eye" or a target rash, with a red inflamed area around the bite, then a white circle, then a red circle outside that, possibly with raised skin. It's definitely something to be concerned about, so if you notice one of your friends seems to have developed something you could shoot an arrow at, get them to a GP.
3. Use Repellant On Skin & Clothing
Luckily there are insect sprays that can deal with ticks, but one school of thought dictates that just skin-based sprays aren't enough: you also need to treat your clothing. LifeHacker, for instance, recommends putting DEET on all exposed skin and then treating your shoes, socks, and long pants (a must in tick-infested areas) with a substance called permethrin, a particularly lethal insecticide. (Don't use it in the house if you have domestic animals, particularly cats.) This regiment is based on the idea that killing ticks before they get a chance to reach your skin is a more structured defense, but always ask about proper usage and read all the instructions. Twice.
4. Dress Appropriately
If you're in an area where you know ticks are a problem, keep your animals indoors (ticks will have a field day on them) and dress like the most obvious tick-hater around. Long sleeves, long pants, long socks: cover your skin as much as possible before you go rambling into woodland or deep brush. It's also recommended that you wear light-colored fabrics, not just for the summer heat but to make ticks (which are dark) more obvious if they come home on your clothes.
5. Understand How To Remove A Tick
The key part of Lyme disease transmission via tick bite is that it requires the tick to be attached to you for a significant length of time, between 16 and 24 hours. However, you likely won't jump or immediately notice a tick bite, because they carry anesthetic in their mouths to reduce a meal's awareness of their snacking — which means you need to be super-vigilant about checking everywhere when you've been in a risky area, even if you think you're sure nothing's gotten you.
If you do notice one, get it off you as soon as possible, but do it effectively. It's recommended that you use very fine tweezers or a specialist tick removal tool, and pinch off the attached insect as close to the skin as possible; ticks are well-known for breaking apart and leaving heads or mouths still attached to their prey, which means you'll still be vulnerable to Lyme. The area then needs to be thoroughly disinfected with antiseptic, and inspected regularly. And no, you really shouldn't burn a tick off. Ever.
6. Know The Full Range Of Symptoms, Early And Late
Lyme disease tends to turn up in multiple stages. If the early symptoms are caught and treated, you'll likely have a better time, since Lyme that goes untreated for a long period may, in a small portion of the population, produce symptoms similar to chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia, complete with muscle pain and serious exhaustion.
Between three and 30 days from the first infection, you'll likely develop some combination of the bulls-eye rash and vaguely flu-like symptoms, like fever and chills. If you've been in an area where ticks are a possibility, go get yourself tested as soon as this stuff shows up. Over the longer period, untreated Lyme can produce joint pain, nausea, and weird rashes without uniform distribution.
7. Understand That Diagnosis Is A Bit Tricky
Lyme disease is actually a bit of an interesting medical proposition: the tests for it aren't completely reliable due to the nature of the disease. Blood tests are normally used for diagnosis, but in the case of Lyme, they can do peculiar things: in the early stages they may turn up negative, and doctors now usually double-test because a single test may produce a false positive. Tests are most likely to be accurate once you've been ill for a few weeks, and Lyme is often misdiagnosed as other conditions because of the similarity of the symptoms. It's a frustrating combination, and can mean that the most effective treatment for Lyme disease (an early antibiotic cocktail) isn't offered. The most accurate test we've got at the moment is a double-up on blood samples: an enzyme immunoassay test, and then, if that's positive, a Western blot test. If they're both positive, a Lyme disease diagnosis is normally confirmed, so be sure to ask for the test.
All this is not meant to scare you away from the great outdoors — have fun camping and hiking this summer, just be careful out there.