We’re expecting another bumper crop of ticks this year—in part accelerated by a changing climate. The percentage of ticks carrying one or multiple pathogens associated with Lyme has also dramatically increased in our region. This situation has only worsened since I last wrote about integrative approaches to treating Lyme. So, let’s take a look at what that means for those of us who like to spend time outdoors.
What is Lyme?
Lyme is a complex condition, difficult to diagnose and even harder to treat. Several different ticks, as well as insects such as mosquitos, carry a multitude of pathogenic bacteria, protozoa and viruses that can be transmitted to humans and other animals when they attach themselves to their skin for feeding. The microbe most closely associated with Lyme is the spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi. Other co-infections carried by these ticks include Bartonella and Babesia. Often, people infected with any of these pathogens also have other infections such as Ehrlichia, Anaplasma, RMSF, Mycoplasma, Chlamydia, Brucella, and Herpes viruses (including Epstein Barr and Cytomegalovirus).
Having multiple infections is an indication that your immune system may be overwhelmed and the pathogens are getting the upper hand. People in this situation are often extremely and chronically ill. They can have a really hard time functioning day to day and feel like they may die. The way these microbes operate in the body can also contribute to toxicity that creates an additional burden on those suffering from these tick-borne infections.
I will go into more detail in another article about how I work holistically with people experiencing multiple chronic infections with tick-borne pathogens. Here, I want to focus on what you can do to reduce your risk of exposure and steps to take if you suspect a new infection.
Avoiding exposure and infection
Ticks (and insects) are mostly found outdoors. They like moist, shaded habitats and want to attach themselves to animals to feed on their blood. They live in the undergrowth but can also drop down on you from branches. They can move from mice, deer or the family dog to your body, where they often crawl up the legs or arms until they find a nice warm spot to attach themselves to your skin and start feeding, for example around your waist or in your hair. They inject saliva into your skin to prevent coagulation; chemicals in the saliva also give the microbes the ticks carry an advantage by impeding an appropriate immune response.
Be aware that the common assertion that ticks need to have been attached to the body for 24-48 hours to transmit pathogens is not reliable. In fact, transmission has been shown to sometimes occur within 15 minutes or less.
Within a few days or weeks of the exposure, you may develop a bull’s eye rash and/or flu-like symptoms—or you may not. Many people do not become acutely ill after they’ve contracted tick-borne infections. The microbes can move to hiding places in the body where they evade the immune system and cause only very minor symptoms, at least for a while. You can still become very ill, though, either gradually or suddenly at a time when your immune system is compromised for other reasons.
How to know whether you’ve been infected
To test for Borrelia (and other infections), your immune system first needs to develop antibodies. This can take 4-6 weeks or longer. Even then, the tests currently available are rather unreliable to establish an infection. Some labs are better than others. Unfortunately, early testing will often clear you (because your immune system hasn’t responded yet) and you may not receive appropriate treatment right away. Or, if you wait several weeks until testing is more likely to reflect an infection, the window of opportunity may be closing for treating an acute infection successfully with prescription antibiotics. So, if there’s a good chance that you were exposed and are developing signs and symptoms of Lyme, even if not proven through blood tests, it may be a wise choice for your MD to put you on doxycycline (or a similar antibiotic) for 4-8 weeks.
The crux for many outdoor aficionados in the Northeast, however, is that we get bitten by ticks (and insects) so frequently that we would be constantly taking harsh prescription antibiotics to have the best chance of avoiding chronic Lyme-associated infections. These drugs are no fun to take, they provoke drug resistance in pathogens, wipe out your friendly gut bacteria, and just overall damage the body and the immune system in particular.
What you can do
So, here are a couple of strategies for you to avoid this fate. First of all, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, meaning that avoiding ticks should be your number one priority. Walk in the middle of the trail, don’t crawl under shrubs and bushes or roll around on the ground, wear light-colored pants (tucked into your socks, if possible), long-sleeved shirts, sombreros, etc. and apply insect repellents consistently. DEET and picaridin are synthetic products that are highly rated. (Permethrin can be applied to clothing.) Natural products are another option but they are less reliable and their effects usually don’t last anywhere near as long. (Personally, I prefer picaridin products, which I apply to exposed skin. So far, so good!) Once you’re back home, you need to check yourself from head to toe, using mirrors and good lighting because these buggers are tiny—especially the nymphs.
If you find any ticks, remove them carefully, preferably using tweezers close to the skin to ensure the whole tick is removed. Apply clove oil to the bite. Save the tick in a clean sandwich bag with a note about the time and location. This will allow you to later have the tick tested in case you develop symptoms, which can be more useful for a decision about antibiotics than waiting several weeks until blood labs can give an indication of infection.
In addition, there are several botanicals and essential oils that can be used preventively and to treat an acute infection. A Lyme-literate clinical herbalist or naturopath can make recommendations and help you choose appropriate tinctures or topicals.
All this may seem pretty cumbersome and complicated to you but, believe me, you want to do all you can to avoid developing a chronic or persistent infection with Lyme-associated microbes such as Borrelia, Bartonella and Babesia. It’s really worth the effort.
© 2019 Christiane Siebert