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Expect a plentiful tick season, experts say

With the arrival of spring weather, the temptation to venture outdoors is understandably hard to resist, given the sudden abundance of sunlight and flowers, but warmer temperatures also signal the return of tick season and, by extension, the threat of Lyme disease.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has labeled Lyme disease as the fastest-spreading vector-borne disease with an estimated 300,000 cases per year.

Northern Virginia in particular tends to be a hot spot for ticks, National Capital Lyme Disease Association (NatCapLyme) executive director Monte Skall says.

There are perhaps few people who have as strong an understanding of the prevalence of Lyme disease and the challenges faced by those who contract it as Steve Thomas, a local history teacher and a survivor of the disease.

Infected through a tick bite he got when he was 13, Thomas struggled with chronic pain, memory loss, fatigue, and other health issues.

Initially, doctors diagnosed his condition as Lou Gehrig’s disease, but through his own research, which included a fortuitous encounter with a trailer for the 2008 documentary "Under Our Skin," Thomas realized that he actually had Lyme disease.

Eventually, Thomas and his wife and two children were all diagnosed with the disease, though they have all been treated and now lead active, fulfilling lives.

“That’s a really sad story about my life,” Thomas quipped after moderator Marjorie Veiga described his experiences for NatCapLyme’s “The ABCs of Lyme Disease” panel, held at James Madison High School in Vienna on Apr. 24. “I’m glad you ended on a positive note. I’m up there going, that really sucks.”

According to physician assistant Kim Fogarty, who works at Jemsek Specialty Clinic, a Lyme disease treatment facility based in Washington, D.C., Thomas’s experience with confused doctors and misdiagnoses is not uncommon, because there is still a lot that the medical profession does not know about Lyme disease.

Lyme disease does not behave like any other infection or disease, and the tests currently used to detect it are imprecise, since the disease affects the immune system and can be complicated by co-infections, such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Fatigue and other sleep issues are the most common symptoms of Lyme disease, Fogarty says, but it also causes neurological issues, chronic headaches, sensitivity to light and sound, abrupt personality changes, muscle and joint pain, nausea, and vomiting.

Moreover, there is no definitive timeline for when symptoms might become noticeable, because the infection can remain dormant if it is suppressed by a person’s immune system, presenting only when it is triggered by another illness or a physical or emotional stressor.

While companies and labs continue to work on improved diagnostic testing, there are steps that people can take to avoid getting Lyme disease in the first place, primarily by defending against ticks.

The black-legged or deer tick is the species found most commonly in Virginia, and it tends to be most active from April through September, according to Joshua Smith, the environmental health supervisor for the Fairfax County Health Department’s disease carrying insects program.

Smith recommends wearing long pants and shirts with long sleeves that can be tucked into a waistband to keep ticks off the skin. Light-colored clothing is also ideal, since it makes ticks easier to spot.

People should also use insect repellant with diethyltoluamide (DEET) and spray permethrin, a chemical insecticide, on their clothes.

After spending time outside, people should conduct tick checks, preferably by taking a bath or shower with a mirror at hand in order to examine areas of the body that are hard to see.

Smith also says that people with lawns should keep their grass cut short and clean fallen leaves, since ticks often hide there. Deer, which frequently serve as hosts for ticks, should be kept out of yards.

If someone finds a tick on their body, the CDC recommends using tweezers to remove the pest as quickly as possible, and the area where it was found should be cleaned afterwards.

For people currently living with Lyme disease, James Madison High School alum and current George Mason University student Felicia Moreno offered some words of encouragement based on her own experience with the disease.

Moreno was diagnosed with Lyme disease when she was 15 years old, and she went on and off intravenous antibiotics to treat it for five years.

Though the disease disrupted her high school education, forcing her to get homebound instruction after she was unable to regularly attend classes, Moreno says a strong support system enabled her to still live a relatively normal life with friends, school activities, and even prom.

“Things will get better,” Moreno said.


Eastern & Western ends of the County, have found ticks on the kids legs this month after hiking trails in places we didn’t previously have a problem.

Visitors to Claude Moore Park’s trails and ponds should wear tick repellent. The deer spread them as they move around the park.

Yes this season has already been noticeably worse than previous years. My first indication was our dog coming home with a tick from just a walk through our neighborhood - no long grass, no crazy overgrown vegetation, just a typical walk around the ‘lake’. 

I hate ticks with a passion.  Four years ago I woke up in the middle of the night with a pair of them burrowed into the big vein of my elbow pit.  I ended up in the emergency room a few days later with brain swelling and a horrible bacterial infection. 

Anyways, this year we have shaved the dog very short to make checking easier.  We have started using a spray comprised of a few different essential oils to help repel the ticks too, it has worked just okay so far, further testing is needed.  He is on Frontline too, as many of our animals are, but that only is effective once the nasty little bugs have had a taste of blood.  There’s really no answer for avoiding these pests other than checking your animals and checking yourself constantly. 

If you find one, use tweezers to grab it as close to the head (likely burrowed into the skin) as possible and pull it out with one quick jerking motion.  If the head is left behind then so be it, a healthy human/animal should be able to deal with that.  Treat as any other minor topical wound. 

DO NOT use alcohol, vaseline, gasoline, fire, or any other means to try to encourage the tick to back out on its own.  Using the above methods will result in the tick regurgitating its stomach contents into your/your animals bloodstream.  This is what they do when distressed.  Included in those stomach contents could be something that makes you or your dear pet very sick.  If they don’t have a stomach attached to their head, then hopefully you’ve avoided anything major. 

Good luck to all of you.  DEET can be toxic to pets and anything with permethrin can be fatal to felines, so be careful with those sprays.  Essential oils can also be toxic to animals and every dog/cat is different, so do your homework and ask your vet about these products before using.

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