Let’s Talk about Ticks (and Tick-Borne Illnesses)

You’re looking out for rocks that could roll your ankles. You’re watching for blazes to guide your way. I get it — looking out for pin-sized bugs while trying to focus on hiking is a task often swept to the side.

But this task is just as important as filtering water and wearing sunscreen, and there’s a lot of misinformation on how to protect yourself from the critters of the woods. So, let’s talk about everyone’s favorite woodland creature: ticks.

Myth: Lyme Disease is all I really have to worry about

Fact: There are many different types of tick-borne illnesses with wide-ranging effects and symptoms. The CDC also breaks down which illnesses are most prevalent in which regions of the country. Unfortunately, the AT runs through some of the most tick-infested regions of the US. Some of these illnesses have long-term effects, while others can be easily cured with medication.

Myth: The main symptom I need to look out for is the ‘Lyme Disease ring’

Fact: Many tick-borne illnesses show up in a multitude of ways. Not having a “ring” around a bite does not mean you’re in the clear. In fact, nearly 30% of Lyme Disease carriers never obtain a rash at all. Other symptoms of tick-borne illnesses include muscle and joint pain, headaches and fatigue, nausea and diarrhea, fever/chills or skin rashes. Of course, these symptoms can show up as other ailments (such as dehydration), but look out for persistent and strong symptoms for multiple days or weeks. Listening to your body and conducting regular tick checks is the best way to manage and prevent symptoms like these.

Myth: If I wear bugspray or long sleeves, I’m protected.

Fact: Daily tick checks should be part of all of our routines in the backcountry. It’s something people talk about, but it should be as commonplace as starting up your stove or filtering water. It’s a necessity, especially if you choose to hike in fewer layers. Reports show bug sprays, such as DEET, are only 85-89% effective against ticks when used regularly and properly.

Myth: I’ve already had it — I’m good!

Fact: The CDC claims that Lyme Disease is not a one-time ordeal, it can infect a single person multiple times. It is also possible to have multiple tick-borne illnesses at once.

Myth: Everyone gets it anyway, so there’s no need to bother with all of these extra steps

Fact: In 2016, the ATC collected data showing merely 5% of thru-hikers had reported being infected by Lyme Disease. It is possible (and very likely) to hike the whole Appalachian Trail without tick-related setbacks. However, a simple tick check (done by examining arms, legs, rib cage, knees, ankles and other sensitive ve or exposed areas — I often ran my hands over these areas feeling for any bumps while also searching for any irregularities) can go a long way in preventing any illnesses. Additionally, be sure to dress in layers and use bug repellent in dense parts of the woods.

My diagnosis of Anaplasmosis became a major physical and mental setback during my time on trail. Luckily, I sought medical treatment and was able to get ahead of any long-term issues. Tick-borne illnesses can disrupt your hike (and your life). Take it from me, it’s worth the extra time to ensure your body is tick-free and healthy.

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