Some necessary tick talk

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There’s a man from Boston who treks Brazil’s Amazon River, hangs out in Nepal with the Himalayan Rescue Association, and climbs Mt. McKinley with the Ranger Patrol in Alaska’s Denali National Park.  His name is Dr. N. Stewart Harris, M.D.

When he’s not out adventuring, Dr. Harris wears the ubiquitous uniform of a white coat over blue scrubs at Massachusetts General Hospital as an attending physician in the Emergency Department. Harris is also Chief of Wilderness Medicine at MGH. But, as you might have guessed, he’s not the typical uniform-wearing type. He is, however, a strong advocate for dressing properly as you trek outside to enjoy these last sparkling days of summer.

When this doctor talks ticks, people listen.

Last winter’s record-setting snowfall contributed to an uptick in tick numbers. Mountains of snow insulated deer ticks under a cozy blanket of white. While we were shoveling canyons into 110.6 flaky inches, tiny, black, eight-legged fiends were cozying up and multiplying.

Unlike mosquitos, ticks are active day and night. They migrate all around us on deer, birds and rodents then settle down, sight unseen, into grasses, shrubs and woodlands. Every time you, your kids or pets are playing on the lawn, hiking, trail biking, camping, gardening or backyard barbecuing, you’re hanging out with ticks. You may not like them, but they love you.

From spring until the first frost, ticks find a way to latch onto sneakers and shoes, slowly creeping up legs and eventually attaching themselves onto skin. They can settle into body folds and belly buttons without you feeling a thing. When they’re not climbing up and around, they’re climbing through your hair, settling on your scalp, behind your ears or under your hairline.

When a tick is found, immediate removal with clean tweezers followed by a soapy rinse is the best procedure to follow. Call your primary care doctor to describe what happened and review your recent activities, especially if you’ve been to Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket. Both islands are considered the epicenter of Lyme Disease. Often, doctors recommend a one-time oral dose of an antibiotic to prevent long term affects from an infected parasite’s unwelcome attachment.

Sometimes, a deer tick bite goes unnoticed until a warm rash or unseasonable flu-like symptoms develop. Frequently, a red bull’s eye shaped ring on the skin is indicative of an infected tick’s bite.

If left untreated, a tick bite can develop into Lyme disease, causing long-term fatigue, heart palpitations, loss of facial muscle tone, and arthritis. Without proper diagnosis and care, a pregnant woman may deliver a stillborn child after being infected by this tick-born bacteria. Intensive antibiotic therapy usually resolves the effects of the infection. Lyme disease and its symptoms are not contagious and are not transferable between pets and family.

Experts agree, Lyme disease is one of those health problems far better to prevent than cure. Applying an insect repellent that includes a 12-to-25 percent solution of DEET to your skin, usually prevents a tick from biting. DEET is well tolerated by most adults and children (not infants).  Another tick-eluding trick is to wear light-colored clothing from head to toe, making ticks easier to spot and flick away before they get the chance to reach the skin and feast on you.

Dr. Harris recommends wearing a hat, long sleeves, and slacks that can be tucked into socks as a protective barrier against insects when outside.  If that uniform is out, full body tick checks and hot showers must be the front line of self-defense.  It’s also wise to toss all clothing and backpacks worn outside into a hot dryer to shake out and kill insects planning to join you on your next adventure.

A thorough tick check of pets will additionally help prevent Lyme disease. It’s routine for veterinarians to prescribe monthly flea and tick medicine for animals. Those medications prevent pets from contracting Lyme Disease but won’t eliminate the possibility that your furry friend will carry ticks into your home, where they can hide in carpets, furniture and bedding, just waiting for you to host their next meal.

In these last few weeks of summer and beginning of fall, get out and enjoy the great outdoors. But remember that a little prevention goes a long way to keeping you “ticked off.”

Diane Kilgore is a Boston-area blogger.

Also by Diane Kilgore:

Daring to daydream at ‘Stickwork’ in Salem

A legacy of longing, a gift of beauty

Boston Public Garden: green en vogue