Ignoring an itchy bug bite could ruin your life... a lesson that Cara knows all too well.
Cara, one of my co-workers at Stansberry Research, barely survived a childhood illness. As Cara told us...
I was one of only 50 reported cases of Rocky Mountain spotted fever in Maryland in April 1982. At 5 years old, I nearly died from it and spent two weeks at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center...
Fortunately, Cara recovered from this dangerous tick-borne illness. She's not alone in her experience...
Each year, tick season is getting longer and much worse. Decades ago, ticks were mostly a problem we worried about in the summer. But now, depending on where you live, tick season starts in early spring and can go all the way through early winter.
For the past few years, the forecast from experts has been the same – a longer season and higher-than-average tick populations. This year is no different... lots of ticks and lots of tick-borne diseases.
Most of us don't spend a lot of time worrying about ticks... But we probably should. Nearly 500,000 people already contract tick-borne diseases each year, and these numbers are on the rise (and many diseases transmitted by ticks go undiagnosed).
If you don't know what to look for, you might delay treatment... and risk a fatal consequence.
Here's the tricky part... Once the infection from a bite spreads to the nervous and muscular systems, it's not only harder to detect, but also less susceptible to antibiotics.
Ticks can carry bacteria, viruses, or parasites – it depends on the tick species and region. But across the U.S., the most commonly reported tick-borne diseases are Lyme disease, babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, anaplasmosis, Southern tick-associated rash illness, tick-borne relapsing fever, and tularemia.
Here's a look at the types of ticks those diseases come from, the region you're likely to find them in, and some symptoms for each disease:
This is just a snapshot of ticks and the diseases they carry. Every state in the U.S. (yes, even Alaska) has ticks.
Lyme disease is the most prevalent tick-borne disease, with 33,461 reported cases in 2014, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But some estimates put the actual number of infections much higher, closer to 500,000.
And the problem is that most cases go unreported because the symptoms often mimic other diseases and frequently come weeks or months after a bite.
Rocky Mountain spotted fever ("RMSF") has been on the rise lately... In 2000, we saw two cases per million people. In 2014, that number was up to 11 cases per million.
Fortunately, we've gotten much better at treating it. Before antibiotics for tick bites became available, nearly 1 in 3 people with RMSF would die of the disease. Today, the fatality rate stands at just 0.5%. But if left untreated, one study of seniors found that RMSF is fatal to at least 70% of elderly victims.
While it's great to know that treatment will probably save your life from a tick bite, a better approach is taking steps to prevent the bites in the first place...
Combating Tick Bites
1. Know your surroundings. Most ticks live in wooded areas and high grass. They also infest yards with trees and any place where deer roam.
If your yard is a high-traffic area for deer, ticks will be present – even if you mow the lawn on the regular and remove grass clippings promptly. For folks who have a forest in their backyard, some health officials recommend making a backyard "moat" – spread some wood chips between the woods and your yard to create a border that's a couple of feet wide.
Ticks also hitchhike on other animals like rats (and people), too. So you might find these even in cities. Make sure to keep your yard free of trash to discourage visits from wildlife looking for food or shelter.
By the way, if you're thinking that ticks only live during the spring and summer, think again. Some ticks can survive cold temperatures. For instance, deer ticks are still active in above-freezing temperatures and can be found in leaf litter. So it's wise to check for ticks even after you're done raking and bagging leaves in that crisp autumn air.
2. Check yourself and your pets – while you're out there and after. Any time you're in one of those tick-prone areas, do a tick check when you return. Run your hands through your hair, feeling the scalp for any small bumps. Check your ears, your groin, under your arms, inside your belly button, the backs of your knees, and around your waist.
Or do what I do and get a tick-check buddy... then get naked and have them help you check spots that are hard to see yourself. I know at my age, I can't see parts of my backside very well.
Don't forget to shake out your clothes and dispose of any ticks that fall off. (I flush them down the toilet.) It also helps to pop your clothes in the dryer for about 10 to 15 minutes and crank the heat to the highest setting to kill any remaining ticks. (When washing the clothes, use the hot-water cycle, too.)
Also, don't just worry about yourself... Dog ticks got their name because they prefer our furry friends. But they can transfer to humans. And whenever you let Fido back inside the house, do a proper check for ticks. A brush or flea comb will help with your pet's hair, but you'll need to check its paw pads and ears manually.
And unless there are small kids around, use a tick-prevention option. Collars or drops work well to ward off both fleas and ticks, which will protect both your pets and the people they get close to. But they're a hazard to children who might carelessly handle a toxic collar or other treatment.
3. Wear the right clothes. Long-sleeved shirts and long pants leave less exposed skin for ticks to latch onto. Also, tucking your pants into your socks will remove an easy path for ticks to climb up your leg. And choose light-colored clothing so you can easily spot ticks that are crawling on it.
Do I mean that you need to dress up like a beekeeper any time you go outdoors? No. I don't want to discourage you from getting fresh air, sunlight (and vitamin D), and exercise. But if you do wear short sleeves and shorts – and plan on being outdoors for a while – check your skin (and your pet) frequently... every hour or so.
Also, please admire the flora and fauna from afar when you go on that hike – be careful not to brush up against too many plants. I recommend wearing a light-colored summer hat whenever you go into areas where ticks may live, especially if you have long and thick hair.
Ticks don't typically skydive from trees because they prefer the shade and lower heights, like a tall blade of grass. But some trees with low-hanging branches can harbor ticks. So a hat will protect your scalp in case you happen to stand up and brush against a branch.
4. Try a spray. We typically don't recommend anything containing high concentrations of diethyltoluamide, or DEET, because of risks of nasty side effects ranging from skin irritation to seizures.
But we do like using oil of lemon eucalyptus as a bug repellent. It lasts about as long as a product with a high DEET percentage. Plus, this citrus-scented oil deters not just ticks, but mosquitoes as well.
5. Did we mention getting naked and checking the skin? Again, always check the skin for ticks after returning from an outdoor adventure. A prompt post-expedition shower helps, too. That way, you can get undressed to do a whole-body check and wash off any ticks that haven't latched onto your skin.
Following these five steps will help keep you disease-free this summer no matter where you go. If you have any tips for dealing with ticks or other pests this summer, we'd love to hear them – send them to us at [email protected].
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- Something different: There's an eerie green light on Jupiter.
Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
June 22, 2023