Become Tick-Savvy Before Your Next Trail Run
Warmer weather means we have a lot more choices regarding where and when we can run. We can skip the treadmill and hit the road after work, and even head for our favorite trail to kick off the weekend!
All winter, we’ve been daydreaming about jumping over rocks and roots and kicking up some dirt, and with good reason. When we get outside and off the beaten path, we can challenge our bodies by running on uneven terrain, recruiting muscles that aren’t always utilized in road running, and giving our brains a chance to unplug.
Unfortunately, spending time in nature can also mean being exposed to the elements and outdoor pests, including ticks.
Running the Risk of Contact with Ticks
Trail runners who spend time training in wooded areas are among those who are more likely to come in contact with a tick. Since ticks are arachnids, they have four pairs of legs like a spider, but can’t fly as insects can. According to scientists, there are thousands of species of ticks found worldwide, most of which are creepy but harmless. The ticks that do pose a threat are found in the U.S.
The Rocky Mountain wood tick, American dog tick, and brown dog tick can carry a disease known as Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF), which has the potential to be fatal. Found in the Northeast and parts of the Midwest, the black-legged tick (deer tick) can carry the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato, which causes Lyme disease.
The disease is an infection that can lead to inflammation of the brain, joint pain, and other medical conditions. Ticks become infected with Lyme disease after feeding on mice or deer with the infection.
If you spend any time running through wooded areas or in tall grass, you may be at risk for a bite from an infected tick.
Understanding Why Some Ticks are So Dangerous
Rocky Mountain spotted fever is a disease spread through the bite of a few species of ticks that can become infected with the Rickettsia rickettsii bacteria. Moving through a person’s skin into their bloodstream, the infection can be deadly if it is not detected early.
The first cases of RMSF were first reported in the Rocky Mountain states. RMSF has since been identified in Canada, Central America, Mexico, and South America, but most cases are reported in the southeastern U.S.
The first case of Lyme disease was reported in 1975, in the town of Old Lyme, CT.
Caused by the B. burgdorferi bacteria, this infectious illness is the most common tick-borne disease in the Northeast, Pacific Northwest, and Upper Midwest regions of the U.S.
Adult deer ticks are barely the size of a sesame seed and juvenile ticks (nymphs) are less than 2 mm in size. So how can something so tiny be so dangerous?
Well, not all ticks are! Out of the thousands of species of ticks, RMSF is only transmitted by the American dog tick, brown dog tick, or wood tick, while the deer tick is the only species that can spread Lyme disease. Both adult and nymph ticks can transmit the Lyme disease bacteria, but the nymphs’ small size makes them hard to spot.
Ticks that spread RMSF do no spread Lyme disease. And there is no scientific evidence to support the theory that air, food, water, or the bites of flies, fleas, lice, or mosquitoes can transmit Lyme disease either. Although your cat or dog can bring infected ticks into your yard or house, there is no credible proof that an infected pet can pass the disease on to you.
If you do have a pet that enjoys playing in the fields or woods, they also have an increased risk of encountering an infected tick and bringing that tick indoors where it could bite anyone living there. And ticks don’t just bite. They remain attached to the host, feeding on their blood for several days. A tick cannot transmit the infection unless it has been present and feeding on the host for 24 to 48 hours, however.
Quick, Correct Tick Removal
A tick cannot transmit enough fluid to infect an individual unless it has been attached for a minimum of 24 hours. Many runners that find a tick on them can estimate how long it has been there based on their last trail run. But don’t depend on that method! Remove the tick correctly and quickly, and see your doctor just to be safe.
To remove a tick correctly, use rubbing alcohol to cleanse the area around the tick bite, and grab the tick as close to its head as you possibly can using pointy tweezers, not your fingertips.
Using firm, steady pressure, pull straight up, being careful not to twist or jerk the tick. With rubbing alcohol, cleanse the bite area one more time and wash your hands with rubbing alcohol, or soap and water after removing it.
If you can preserve the tick without exposing yourself or others to it, take it with you when you see your doctor for testing. Take a photo of the tick if you can’t safely transport the tick. In any case, be sure to see your doctor right away regarding a blood test for RMSF or Lyme disease, and start the necessary treatment immediately.
Symptoms of RMSF and Lyme Disease
Individuals who have been bitten by a tick will occasionally have a small, red bump at the site of the bite or where they have removed the tick. This is not an indication of RMSP or Lyme disease though.
On the other hand, many individuals suffering from Lyme disease have no recollection of contact with a tick, or a tick bite. That’s why understanding and recognizing the symptoms of Lyme disease and RMSF is so critical!
RMSF symptoms include chills, high fevers, neurological changes such as confusion, muscle aches, nausea and vomiting, severe headaches, and a characteristic red rash that is not itchy and usual appears within three to five days after other symptoms occur.
Early Lyme disease warning signs include symptoms that occur within a month after becoming infected:
- An erythema migrans rash, which is a red rash that appears to spread in the three to 30 days after being bit by an infected tick. Often, the rash forms a bullseye pattern and may be warm to the touch and appear on other parts of the body, in addition to the infection site.
- Body aches, chills, fatigue, fever, headache, a stiff neck, and swollen lymph nodes.
- Inflammation of the eyes or liver (hepatitis), severe fatigue, an irregular heartbeat, or other heart problems is less common symptoms that may develop several weeks after being infected.
Later Lyme disease warning signs include symptoms occurring weeks and even months after becoming infected:
- An outbreak of the erythema migrans rash on other parts of the body.
- Joint pain and swelling that is severe and seems to shift from joint to joint. The pain can be especially severe in the knees.
- Weeks, months, or even years after infection, inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain (meningitis) may occur.
- Temporary paralysis of one side of the face (Bell’s palsy), diminished muscle movement, and/or weak or numb limbs may also be experienced weeks, months, or years after being infected.
See a doctor if you are experiencing these symptoms after spending time running in a grassy or wooded area, or on the trails, even in the absence of a tick on your body.
Treatments for RMSF and Lyme Disease
Since you can become infected with Lyme disease, but never notice a bullseye rash, it is imperative that you ask your doctor for a blood test if you’ve experienced the symptoms above, especially for anyone living and running in an area where Lyme disease and RMSF are common.
Even after getting the blood test, you may not test positive for Lyme disease.
If you tested negative for Lyme disease, but you have several of the symptoms of infection after spending time in the woods or on the trails, discuss other testing and treatment options with a medical professional.
If not treated with the proper antibiotic early on, RMSF can be deadly.
Doxycycline is the treatment of choice for RMSF and all other tickborne rickettsial diseases. Those with a severe doxycycline allergy may undergo rapid desensitization procedures as an alternative to doxycycline per their physician. Chloramphenicol is the only alternative drug treatment for RMSF, but studies suggest that it is associated with other health risks. Seeking medical attention and starting doxycycline within the first five days is critical to effectively fighting the illness and avoiding severe complications.
Starting antibiotic treatment for Lyme disease during the early stages of infection is the most effective way to completely recover from the illness and avoid suffering from chronic Lyme disease. Chronic Lyme disease lasts for six months or more and has little or no response to antibiotic treatments. The symptoms of chronic Lyme disease are inflammation around the heart, memory loss, nerve damage, and other health conditions that can become irreversible if they are not treated early enough.
Ask your doctor about treating the infection immediately with a three-week dose of the appropriate antibiotics to ensure a complete, quick recovery. By treating Lyme disease soon after symptoms begin with amoxicillin, cefuroxime axetil, or doxycycline (the most commonly prescribed antibiotics for oral treatment of the illness) the infection is highly curable.
Taking Precautions Before Your Next Trail Run
The best approach to dealing with RMSF or Lyme disease is to avoid tick bites and eliminate the chance of contracting an infection these creepy critters might carry in the first place. If you are training or racing in the mid-Atlantic states, the upper Midwest, or New England take extra precaution.
Every time you run on trails, in the woods, or through grassy fields, be sure to wear tick repellent that contains DEET. Consider treating your clothing, shoes, and gear with tick repellant as well. Stay on the trail to avoid brushing against plants, tall grass, or animals like deer. If you run with your pets, treat them with tick-control products, and you can protect your animals and in turn yourself!
When you get done running outdoors, inspect your skin, clothes, gear, and pets for ticks. To pick up a loose tick, use a lint roller over your clothes and body.
Shower after your trail run and scan your body a second time, checking in your underarms, elbow creases, behind your ears and knees, behind your neck, and anywhere dark, hairy, and warm. As ticks can be as tiny as poppy seeds, remember to be thorough, and ask your significant other for help checking spots that are hard to see and reach on your own.
Investing in some permethrin-treated clothing is a great way to have peace of mind while running in tick country, as it lasts from three to four weeks. An insecticide that repels ticks and inhibits them from grabbing onto clothes, permethrin can be sprayed onto clothing, shoes, and even your hydration pack (just remove your bladder first and keep it separate from your pack until the permethrin dries entirely). It takes a few hours for clothes, shoes, and gear to dry after a permethrin-treatment, so plan accordingly.
By taking some precautions before, during, and after running, you can worry less about coming in contact with infected ticks on your next trail run, and focus on connecting with nature and enjoying the outdoors instead!
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