Scouting magazine

How to avoid and treat tick bites in the wild

Situation: You’re hiking the central Pennsylvania portion of the Appalachian Trail, having spent the previous night in a tent. During a water break, you notice what appears to be a new mole in the crook of your leg. Oddly, though, this mole has legs. You attempt to brush it off, but it holds fast. Instantly, you recognize this despicable bloodsucking creature for what it is. What should you do?

Solution: As your parents undoubtedly once exclaimed: Don’t pick at it!

First, concentrate on removal of the insect as your priority. Deal with identification and consider potential pathogens later.

Regardless of the type of tick attached to your skin, removal is fairly straightforward. All you really need is a good pair of fine-tipped tweezers.

Using tweezers, grab the head of the tick — the body part attached to you — as close to the skin as possible. Pull straight up and out. Take care not to squeeze the tick’s abdomen, which might be engorged with blood. Once the tick is free, do not kill it. If feasible, place it in a plastic bag or other sealable container so you can identify the tick species later.

Then treat the bite site with antiseptic and cover it with a small bandage.

It’s now time to consider the possibility of disease transmission. There are no reliable statistics on what percentage of any particular tick species carries any particular pathogen, be it Lyme disease or anything else, such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever. According to the Centers for Disease Control, current research indicates that Lyme disease can be transmitted only by the black-legged tick (or deer tick) in the Northeastern and upper Midwestern U.S., and by the Western black-legged tick along the Pacific coast.

That said, in ticks that do carry Lyme disease, it has been shown to be the most common pathogen, says Dr. Tom Mather, director of the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Vector-Borne Disease. The good news is that the probability of infection by a tick that has been attached for less than 36 hours is low.  “And everyone’s susceptibility is different,” says Mather.

Careful tick checks each evening are crucial. Ticks tend to like folds and creases in the body. Remember to inspect gear and clothing, too.

Once the tick has been removed and you return home with your specimen, take a photo of it. You can upload the picture to tickencounter.org, where the tick will be identified for you within one to three days. If it turns out the tick might harbor Lyme disease, there is still no reason to panic. You should watch for symptoms, which (for Lyme disease) might take four to six days to develop. These include fever, muscle ache, headache and the telltale bull’s-eye rash.

What is certain is that if you have found an engorged tick, identified it as a deer tick and you display symptoms, see a doctor. In most cases, treatment includes a two-week dose of antibiotics. When caught early, odds of a full recovery are good, and chances of developing full-blown chronic Lyme disease are extremely low.

Your best defense is to cover exposed skin as much as possible, and wear insect repellent that contains at least 20 percent DEET. Combined with regular tick checks and prompt removal, these steps will help keep you safe.