Great Outdoors: Beware the bug

My husband and I met hiking on the Battenkill River in Vermont, and since moving to the Berkshires we have enjoyed exploring various hiking trails woven throughout the Berkshire Hills with our family. Some of our favorites include Bash Bish Falls in South Egremont, Basin Pond in Lee, Beartown Mountain in Monterey and the Becket Quarry Walk. As the temperature rises and the snow disappears, many of us will be increasing our outdoor activity over the next few weeks. Soon enough, so will the bugs. Ticks pose a serious health hazard to people and pets, and we need to take steps to prevent tick-borne illness while enjoying the outdoors.

Black-legged (deer) ticks and dog ticks are found throughout Massachusetts and spread different disease-causing germs. The most common tick-borne diseases in Massachusetts are Lyme disease, babesiosis, and Human Granulocytic Anaplasmosis (HGA). Like many states, Massachusetts has experienced a rise in tick populations and reported tick-borne illnesses. According to the 2016 surveillance conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, there were 828 confirmed cases of HGA, an 8.5 percent increase from 2015. However, after carefully examining the statistics, this is a 491 percent increase since 2011. These studies also show one of the areas of highest incidence of HGA is southern and western Berkshire County.

My husband is one of many among the statistics. He contracted both Lyme disease and anaplasmosis, we believe in 2016, but was not diagnosed until 2017. We have a few close friends who also have been diagnosed within the past five years with one or another tick-borne disease. Ticks and the illnesses they transmit do not discriminate. Male, female, non-binary, old, young, rich, poor, hikers, hunters, anglers, landscapers, gardeners or nature photographers are all vulnerable. This is why we all need to take steps to prevent tick bites while enjoying the great outdoors.

The peak activity time for ticks is April through October. They are usually found on low-lying plants in brushy, wooded or grassy places. When hiking, make sure to stick to main pathways and the center of trails. Wear a light-colored, long-sleeved shirt with long pants, and make sure to tuck your pants into your socks. When the temperatures are high, this may be difficult to do, but it will help keep ticks away from your skin and make it easier to spot ticks on clothing.

Using a tick repellent can reduce your chances of being bitten by a tick and therefore reduces the risk that you will contract disease. Make sure to read the active ingredient on the product label. Products containing DEET (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide) or permethrin are commonly recommended for protection against ticks. Other repellents, such as picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus and IR 3535 have also been found to provide protection against ticks. Always read the product label to determine the percentage of effectiveness and to whom or what and how often it should be applied. For example, some products are not safe for use on children or clothing. After returning indoors, wash your skin and clothing that had repellent on them.

One of the most important things you can do is check yourself, your loved ones and pets for ticks once daily. Ticks love to hide between the toes, on the back of knees, in the groin area, armpits, neck, along the hairline and behind the ears. Ticks are so tiny, so look for new spots or dots that resemble freckles. If you find a tick on your skin, do not panic. Use a pair of fine point tweezers to grip the tick as close to the skin as possible, and pull straight out with steady pressure. Note the calendar date and the location on the body the tick was removed. You may want to save the tick for identification purposes. Notify your health care provider immediately if you develop a rash or experience symptoms of illness, such as fever, headache, fatigue, or sore and aching muscles, following a tick bite.

So, the next day you plan to take a romp in nature, take some precautionary measures to save yourself from becoming part of the statistics. Speak to your veterinarian about the best ways to protect your pets from ticks. For more information about tick-borne diseases and what you can do to keep you, your loved ones, and your pets safe, please visit www.mass.gov/dph/tick.

Stephanie DuPont is on the board of directors for the Lee Sportsmen’s Association and a columnist for the Berkshire Record. You can contact her at dupontfam5@gmail.com.

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