by Esther Lutz, East Central IL Master Naturalist for U of I Extension in Coles County
September has finally rolled around, and my buddy, Pablo, and I have enjoyed taking long walks on cool late-afternoons. Pablo is our family dog, an eight-year-old Great Pyrenees with a fluffy white coat. The long hot month of August was pretty stressful for him. I couldn't risk taking him out for a jaunt and getting him over-heated, so he really didn't get much extended exercise. Yes, we could have gone early in the day when it's coolest. But even though I tried early-morning walks for several years, it just never really worked for me. I've never been, nor will I ever be, an early-bird. And Pablo, well, he's not picky. He's happy to go whenever I choose, no complaints, always cheerful and willing to run alongside, whatever the time of day. So, it works well for us.
We have a system, Pablo and I. I walk as briskly as I can on the side of our country road, while he meanders up and down in the ditches alongside, nose to the ground, investigating any and every scent he comes across. It's a real adventure for him! The horses at the bottom of the hill sometimes come to the pasture edge and follow us, so curious and not quite figuring out what that big fluffy white thing is that they see running along the fence. He pays no attention to them as he takes advantage of his double-long leash; it gives him plenty of freedom to roam while still staying tethered to me. To the casual observer it can be hard to really tell who is walking whom (as friendly neighbors often slow down in their vehicles and teasingly ask me along the way)!
Watching Pablo daily work his way through the weeds brings to mind an incident involving one of our young daughters many years ago, about this time of year. We noticed one day that our six-year-old had a strange-looking rash on the calf of her leg, and it seemed to just appear overnight. It looked to be strangely in the shape of a bull's-eye, and I remembered reading articles about parasites in my long-ago Zoology classes that said such a rash could indicate Lyme disease resulting from a tick bite. A quick trip to the doctor and a blood test confirmed the diagnosis, and she was put immediately on a regimen of strong antibiotics for a couple of weeks. The doctors were puzzled as to where she might have been bitten, as at that time the only other confirmed case in Coles County in recent years had been a local conservation officer who had had assignments outside of the county. It had never been determined where exactly he had acquired his tick bite, so no one really knew whether or not Lyme disease could definitely be confirmed as having origins in Coles County. Our daughter's infection simply added to the mystery.
What is Lyme disease, and how does a person get it? Lyme disease is an illness caused by bacteria that are transmitted by infected deer ticks, also known as black-legged ticks (not the same as the more familiar dog tick). Not all deer ticks carry the bacterium, and not all bites by those that do will result in the development of Lyme disease. But since it is impossible to tell which ticks could be infected simply by looking at them, it is important to avoid tick bites whenever possible. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, the disease was first recognized in 1975 in the United States after a mysterious outbreak of arthritis near Old Lyme, Connecticut. Over the years the disease has been reported more frequently and has thus become an important public health concern.
Both immature and adult deer ticks can be infected with and transmit Lyme disease. They acquire the bacteria by feeding on small mammals that carry the infection, such as the white-footed mouse. Each of the tick's three life stages requires a different host animal, and it takes two years to complete the life cycle. The immature deer ticks may be only the size of a pin head, and the adults are only slightly larger. In addition to people, several domestic animals (dogs, cattle, horses) can also become infected and develop arthritis-like symptoms.
What are the disease's symptoms? The signs of this disease can vary greatly from one person to the next, and also with the length of time that a person has been infected. In 70 - 80 percent of cases, a ring-like red rash will appear 3 - 32 days after the bite of an infected tick. The rash at the site of the bite will grow larger in a circular pattern over days or weeks. In the process, the center of the rash clears and has been said to start to resemble a bull's-eye. By itself the rash is not painful, but as time passes it may be accompanied by other symptoms such as chills, fever, headache, fatigue, joint and muscle pain, and swollen lymph nodes. Because the initial symptoms may resemble other ailments such as the flu or mononucleosis, some people may not be diagnosed in Lyme disease's beginning stages. Many people will not remember or be aware of a tick bite, so days, weeks, or even months may pass without the disease ever being diagnosed or treated. This can present a real problem as other symptoms develop that include severe headaches, stiff neck, temporary facial paralysis, heart irregularities, weakness or numbness in arms and legs, memory problems, and a common type of Lyme arthritis. Since these symptoms are present in so many other ailments, an association with Lyme disease may never be made and proper treatment may never be administered. Full recovery in such cases may not occur, and the patient can eventually be afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis-like conditions. While not usually fatal, the symptoms can be debilitating.
Can it be treated? Yes, the administration of appropriate oral antibiotics can cure the disease if it is caught in the early stages. If the infection is not caught early or is difficult to control, then an intravenous regimen of strong antibiotics may need to be used, and full recovery still may not ever be achieved.
How can we avoid being bitten? Making sure that our property is unattractive to ticks by keeping the grass mowed and the weeds cut is a good start. Avoiding tick-infested areas such as open fields, grassy areas with weeds, and especially the margin where fields meet wooded areas is also a good idea. If we must be in such areas, wearing protective clothing such as light-colored long-sleeved shirts, long pants, sturdy shoes or boots, and a head covering can help keep our skin covered. Tucking pant cuffs into our socks and taping where the pants and socks meet can prevent the ticks from getting underneath clothing. Walking near the center of trails so that weeds cannot brush against us can help. A repellant containing 10 to 30 percent DEET applied to clothing may deter the ticks from latching on (follow label directions carefully). And thoroughly checking children, pets, and ourselves soon after time outdoors can catch a problem before it starts. Most ticks do not attach quickly and must be connected to skin for four or more hours before transmitting a tickborne illness. If attached, remove the tick promptly by grasping it with tweezers as close to the skin as possible, and gently, but firmly, pull it straight out without twisting or jerking. Wash the site thoroughly with soap and water, and apply an antiseptic. Be alert to any signs or symptoms that may develop thereafter and seek medical help if needed.
We were fortunate that our daughter's infection exhibited the telltale bull's-eye rash. It immediately alerted us to the problem and we knew to seek treatment. She came through the ordeal unscathed and is now a happy and healthy 25-year old, having suffered no further effects from Lyme disease since her treatment at age six. But it will always be in her medical history and is important to know should any classic signs appear later in life, however unlikely. As for Pablo, I'm pretty confident that on our daily walks he is protected from infection by his routine monthly flea and tick treatments. And after our family's close encounter with Lyme disease, I'll leave the ticks to enjoy their weedy habitats, and I'll either take precautions or just happily keep my distance. They deserve our respect.