Tick talk: Preventing the bite is key

JOEY WALDINGER
Correspondent

As we ease into spring and the temperatures begin to spike, the ticks begin to strike.

Luckily, there are plentiful ways to protect against tick bites and the diseases they carry, but residents need to stay informed and take necessary precautions. That’s where Susan Schoemfeld, a member of the Medical Reserve Corps, comes in. Schoemfeld spoke Tuesday at the Charlotte Library, to share how tick born diseases in Vermont have changed and what Vermonters can do to guard against them.

“Protection is our goal as much as possible,” she said.

Schoemfeld noted that anyone who ventures into areas with tall grass and shrubbery puts themselves at risk of being exposed to ticks, and with outdoor activity so essential to life in Vermont, it is unreasonable to expect people to avoid such environments.

But being conscious of how people conduct themselves outdoors – by staying in the middle of a hiking trail rather than straying to the sides, for instance – can make a huge difference in reducing the likelihood of being bitten, Schoemfeld said.

The second line of defense is to be vigilant about checking for ticks following outdoor activity. If someone finds that they have been bitten, it is important to remove the tick quickly, as they will not transmit any disease if removed in the first 36 hours, Schoemfeld said.

But it’s important to remove a tick using proper technique. Schoemfeld recommended using fine-tipped tweezers and emphasized that ticks should not be squeezed, as this could propel infections into the wound they created.

“You don’t want to burn it, you don’t want to irritate it, you do want to clean the bite area with soap and alcohol,” she said.

Lastly, Schoemfeld advised anyone who has traveled in areas that might expose them to ticks to keep tabs on any flu-like symptoms they might develop. Lyme disease and influenza share many symptoms, so anyone who appears to be developing the flu during the summer, when the flu virus is rarely transmitted, should see a doctor to get tested for lyme or other tick-borne diseases, she said.

Lyme disease is not the only disease ticks can carry – they carry a parasitic disease called babesiosis and a virus called powasun – though Lyme is the one most commonly transmitted tick-borne illness.

However, seeking medical attention for Lyme disease does not always ensure that someone will receive the best care, said Sallie Mack, a Lyme specialist and homeopath at the Vermont Lyme Support Network.

After Mack contracted Lyme disease, she went to a doctor for treatment, but because one of her symptoms was confusion, she said she was instead told to see a psychiatrist. Mack was officially diagnosed with Lyme disease 16 years after being infected, she said.

“It is unconscionable to be seen this way by the medical community,” she said.

After receiving such ineffective treatment, Mack has doubled down on the preventative measures. Anyone who returns to her household after playing outside must take off their clothes and check themselves while taking a shower. In the meantime, Mack runs the clothes through the wash, drying them for an especially long duration and at the highest temperature possible.

Though Mack and Schoemfeld disagreed on the efficacy of medical detections for Lyme disease – Mack claims the most common test is wrong 46 percent of the time – as well as how long it takes a tick to transmit a disease to a human, they agree that not being bitten in the first place is the most effective way to stay safe.

“You’re going out as consumers, and you will find different answers,” Schoemfeld said. “The thing we’re all clear on is prevention.”

Chris Zappala attended the tick talk at the library. He said he has long been aware of the dangers posed by ticks, largely through his friendship with Mack, but he sought more information out of concerns for his dog and children.

While Zappala already knew a lot of the information Schoemfeld shared, he had not previously considered some of the extra preventative measures offered by Mack and Schoemfeld, such as placing possibly contaminated clothes in plastic bags before running them through an extended dryer cycle, he said.

Because the number of people who contract tick-borne diseases is relatively high in Vermont, and because Vermonters have such an affinity for outdoor activity, awareness about tick-borne diseases spread naturally throughout the state, he said.

“We’ve gotten to a point where enough people have had incidences with Lyme disease… that somebody knows somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody, who has had issues with Lyme disease,” he said.

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