Don’t Get Ticked: Tips to Prevent Lyme Disease and Other Tick-Borne Illnesses

With a 28-acre farm, Shore Urgent Care Physician, Dr. John Kulin knows a thing or two about tick bites. “I work on our farm every weekend. It’s normal for me to get at least a couple of tick bites over the course of a weekend,” says Dr. Kulin. But Dr. Kulin has only once developed the tell-tale bullseye Lyme disease rash. “Most tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease aren’t transmitted until a tick has been on your skin for 24 hours or more. If you are diligent about preventing tick bites, checking for and removing ticks promptly, and getting treatment if necessary, you can prevent tick-borne illnesses.”

“When left untreated, tick-borne illnesses can lead to various debilitating chronic conditions, including heart disease, nervous system disorders and painful arthritis. When caught early, a simple antibiotic like doxycycline can be used to treat most tick-borne illnesses,” says Dr. Kulin.

Ticks: The Climate and COVID Conundrum

Ticks are becoming more of a problem. Winters in our region are warmer now, giving ticks more time to reproduce and spread disease. In fact, according to the CDC, the number of reported illnesses from ticks and other disease-carrying insects more than doubled between 2004 and 2018. Dr. Kulin says COVID also complicates things.

“Most tick-borne illnesses present flu-like symptoms a few weeks after the bite – fever, chills, and muscle and joint aches. Before COVID, if someone came to Shore Urgent Care with those symptoms in the summer, we’d strongly consider a tick-borne illness. But since COVID occurs year-round, we must consider COVID along with potential tick-borne illnesses,” said Dr. Kulin. “It’s important to know what’s causing your symptoms.”

Avoiding Ticks

Ticks are no fun, but they shouldn’t keep you from enjoying the great outdoors. Follow these tips from Dr. Kulin so you can enjoy your summer while minimizing your risk of contracting a tick-borne illness:

Use Insecticides and Repellents

  • Permethrin: Permethrin is a synthetic insecticide that mimics chrysanthemum extract and kills ticks soon after they come in contact with your clothing. You can pre-treat your clothing with permethrin, which will last through several wash cycles, or you can even buy pre-treated clothing. It’s essential to follow the manufacturer’s instructions closely.
  • DEET: Dr. Kulin says DEET is still a hallmark of insect repellents. “There are loads of natural options, but none have proven as effective as DEET regarding ticks. Be sure the DEET concentration is 30% or less, especially if using on kids.”

Avoid Tick Hangouts

Ticks aren’t fond of well-manicured yards, but if you live in a more rural area or tend to let nature take its course in your yard, try to be more diligent in keeping ticks away:

  • Clear tall grasses and shrubs around the home and perimeter.
  • Keep the yard mowed and leaves raked.
  • Place a 3-foot barrier of wood chips or rocks around your yard, patio and play areas to keep ticks out if woods or fields surround you.
  • Stay centered. Use well-traveled trails whenever possible and stay in the center where there is less likely to be underbrush or long grasses and, thus, ticks.

Dress the Part

If you’re going out in a tick-friendly area, try to wear the following:

  • Light-colored clothing. It will make it easier to spot a tick later.
  • Long pants and long sleeves. Wear light-weight long-sleeved shirts tucked into pants, and pants tucked into socks.
  • Closed-toed shoes. Sandals are an open invitation to ticks! Wear sneakers or hiking boots instead.

Checking for Ticks

After a day in the outdoors, it’s important to prevent ticks from hanging around long enough to bite you:

  • First, check your clothing for ticks.
  • Throw your clothes in the dryer for at least 10 minutes on high heat before washing to kill any ticks. Then you can wash them as usual. If you wash first, wash in hot water.
  • Check your whole body. Ticks tend to go toward areas of restriction – behind the knees, armpits, groin, belt line, ankles, and any skin fold. Stand in front of a full-length mirror, and ask a close friend or relative to check the hard-to-see spots like your back, head and ears.
  • Take a shower. Shower within two hours of coming indoors. Showering can wash unattached ticks down the drain.

Removing Ticks

  • Use fine-tipped tweezers and get as close to the skin as possible. Pull steadily upward without twisting, and avoid squeezing the tick, as it can push more of the bacteria into your body.
  • Make sure you remove the head and mouth parts. If not, try to get them out with tweezers. If it’s still too difficult, visit urgent care. They can safely remove it for you, so it doesn’t continue to infect you.
  • Wash the area with soap and warm water.
  • Dispose of ticks by flushing, burning, placing them in alcohol, or folding them in tape and tossing them. Never throw them in the garbage alive – they can crawl out and find you again.
  • Don’t save the tick for testing, but do try to identify it. Just because a tick tests positive for Lyme doesn’t mean you will. Your doctor can order a tick-borne illness blood test to help diagnose you. Knowing the species of tick can help determine what disease you may have possibly contracted.

When to Seek Treatment

  • If you think the tick has been in 24 hrs or longer. “If you come in with an engorged tick that’s probably been on you for 24+ hours, we’ll most likely recommend an antibiotic because we’re in an endemic tick region,” Dr. Kulin says. “Your medical provider will determine the best course of action based on your risk factors.”
  • If you develop symptoms. Dr. Kulin says you should see a medical provider right away, either your primary care or an urgent care, if you can’t see your regular provider. “If you come in with symptoms and two or three weeks ago you had a tick bite, we’re also going to run a blood test for Lyme and other tick-borne illnesses. If the test is negative, we may still treat you with a round of doxycycline because if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it’s probably a duck, and we don’t want to miss an opportunity.”

Dr. Kulin also strongly recommends that people follow up six weeks later for a titer check. “If your initial test is negative, you may not have had enough of a response to detect it. The 6-week follow-up test can catch it. Even if you are positive initially, the follow up titer check can confirm whether it’s treated and gone and reassure us that the antibiotic did its job.”

Dr. John Kulin is a physician at Shore Urgent Care, located at 2605 Shore Road in Northfield, where they offer quick, high quality urgent care seven days a week. Shore Urgent Care is open Monday-Friday, 8am – 8pm, and Saturday and Sunday, 9am – 5pm. For more information, call 609-365-5333 or click here.