Find yourself spending far more time outside during these days of COVID-19-triggered sheltering in place? Thankfully, the powers-that-be of Minnesota weather have gifted us a genuine spring, so the outdoors beckons even more this year than any other in recent memory. Minnesotans’ gardens never looked so good, and many of us have already sailed past our New Year’s resolution to spend more time at the local nature reserve.
And this is just the beginning: As the season warms up – spring turning to summer – Minnesotans will flock to the outdoors in even greater numbers.
But many of us don’t often consider the fact that Minnesota is considered a high-risk state for tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme Disease. The Minnesota Department of Health even predicts that climate change will likely increase the risk of vector-borne diseases, which are often caused by mosquitos, ticks or fleas that spread pathogens.
Lyme Disease is particularly tricky. There is no single, reliable test for Lyme Disease in humans, and myths about Lyme Disease spread quickly. Symptoms – which can include fever, headache and joint aches – mimic those of a lot of other diseases. And perhaps most notably, there is no cure for Lyme Disease. There are, however, steps we can all take to help prevent it.
Ryan Saulsbury, a high school science teacher in Pillager, Minn., knows Lyme Disease intimately because it’s been a part of his life since 2011. In addition to chronic pain, fatigue and other unpredictable physical symptoms, Lyme Disease has also cost his family tens of thousands of dollars in medical care. Saulsbury estimates that out-of-pocket expenses ranged between $1,500 to $1,800 per month at the peak of his treatment. Although he has health insurance, his plan does not cover long-term treatment for the disease.
A devoted educator, Saulsbury uses his relationship with students to teach them about Lyme Disease prevention.
“Sometimes what I experience in terms of pain, I can’t hide and so I don’t know how else to handle it other than to be open with them,” Saulsbury explains. “I’m an educator through and through – it’s who I am, it’s what I do, so I talk to them… I don’t want them to be afraid. I want them to know and understand and really have an in-depth understanding of prevention.”
As you and your families spend time outdoors this spring, summer and fall – all active seasons for ticks of all varieties – consider some of Saulsbury’s simple prevention tips.
Dress for prevention.
Saulsbury has photos of himself in his classroom sporting a less-than-fashionable look, with his pants tucked into his socks. Since ticks cannot fly, they wait on grass, leaves and vegetation for a host to pass by. While not exactly in vogue, tucking one’s pants into socks can prevent ticks from crawling up shoes and socks and onto the skin of the legs.
Dressing in light-colored clothing can also make it easier to see ticks on clothing before they attach to skin.
Consider your bug spray – carefully.
Although natural bug sprays appeal to the environmentally-conscious, they may not be effective in preventing ticks. Permethrin-based repellents and other bug sprays with 30 percent DEET should be used on clothing, shoes and camping gear.
Check yourself (and your pets) for ticks.
Saulsbury emphasizes the importance of tick checks to his students, who tend to spend a lot of time outdoors.
“We talk about tick checks, and I show them how to properly remove a tick. I have multiple tools and I’ll pass them around the room so they kids can see them. We talk about what to do and what not to do.”
Ticks can attach to the skin, bite and transmit disease to a number of hosts: humans, dogs, cats, mice, deer, birds and other wildlife. Although they are most likely to transmit disease in the fall, ticks can be active anytime the temperature is above freezing. Actively checking yourself and pets for ticks can decrease the risk of contracting Lyme Disease.
There are still many unknowns about Lyme Disease, including why symptoms can manifest so differently from person to person and why some cases are far more severe than others. For Saulsbury, the message to get educated about Lyme Disease starts on day one of school.
“At the start of the school year, when kids first come into my classroom, the first day they need to know who I am… and who I am since the beginning of 2011, Lyme has been a big part of my journey,” he explains. “I have sample ticks. The adult, nymph, larval stages… I show them a poppy seed, because a poppy seed is a great example of the size of a nymph tick… I tell them, ‘This might be some of the most important information I share with you this year.’”
Produced in collaboration with the Minnesota Lyme Association.
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