Gentle evening breezes, balmy weather, lush greenery, outdoor recreation .... These are the welcome reminders that summer is on its way and along with it, the fun of being outdoors. It also brings the unwelcome worries of tick bites and the possibility of Lyme disease or its cousin, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, that is transmitted by the bite of a wood tick. These potentially catastrophic ailments should concern those of us who partake in picnics, hikes, lounging in the grass or other favorite summertime activities. It is important to know the symptoms of these diseases, how to avoid being at risk for tick bites, what to do if you are bitten and what herbs may be useful.
What Is Lyme Disease?
While reports of possible tick-related illnesses go back to the early parts of this last century, it wasn’t until 1975 that the American public first heard the term “Lyme disease” in connection with numerous reported cases of illnesses after tick bites in the community of Lyme, Connecticut. Ticks are minuscule insects that travel on deer and other animals, living a parasitic lifestyle of feeding on the host’s blood. Ticks often carry a spirochete bacteria that can be transmitted to the host by the tick. If left untreated, the spirochete then multiplies in the bloodstream, spinal fluid and skin, causing a wide array of possibly devastating symptoms. Once thought to be a risk only to those in the Northeastern and Rocky Mountain regions of the US, tick-born illnesses or infested tick populations have now been reported in nearly every state.
Frequently referred to as the "Great Imitator," Lyme disease is heralded in over 80% of cases by a red rash in the area of the bite followed by flu-like symptoms, including headache, joint pain, sore throat, dry cough, nausea, stiff neck, chills and fatigue. (Awareness of all potential symptoms is vital since symptoms do not always develop uniformly. Some people, for example, never even get a rash.) This first stage generally appears within 30 days of a bite, although there may be a time lag between the bite and the onset of symptoms. In any case, immediate medical treatment with antibiotics is necessary.
If left untreated, the disease can progress to a more chronic stage (sometimes even several months later) involving symptoms resembling fibromyalgia or muscle pain, chronic fatigue syndrome and arthritis. This can cause facial paralysis, heart and liver symptoms, shortness of breath, dizziness, memory problems, brain inflammation, swelling of the knee or other joints, hepatitis, enlarged spleen or lymph nodes, eye problems, testicular swelling, abdominal cramps and hoarseness. Symptoms at this stage have been known to resemble MS (multiple sclerosis), Bell’s palsy, Guillain-Barr syndrome, TMJ (temporomandibular joint syndrome), parkinsonism, Alzheimer’s disease, meningitis, myelitis, measles, carpal tunnel syndrome, bursitis, epilepsy, paralysis and sudden deafness. Psychological disturbances, such as irritability, depression, mood swings, psychosis, dementia and anorexia, could also accompany the aforementioned symptoms.
Spirochetes are most apt to affect organs that are already weakened and can be lethal under two conditions: (1) if there is a history of already present disease in a vital organ; and (2) if diagnosis is delayed and treatment is not given promptly. If it progresses to the third stage of disease without previous diagnosis, testing for spirochete antibody presence in the bloodstream can be done but may require a remnant of the tick that bit you in order to be most effective. Because spirochetes reproduce and mature slowly, there can be a time lag between infection, initial symptoms and antibody development. Thus, the possibility of false negatives on testing is quite real in the early stages.
What Is Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever?
Rocky Mountain spotted fever is a potentially deadly cousin to Lyme disease that is transmitted by the bite of a wood tick. It requires even more immediate medical attention. The first stage of this disease may include rash, severe chills, muscle pain and headache. This can progress to insomnia, delirium and coma. The organism responsible for this disease resembles both a virus and a bacteria.
There have been reports of other tick-born illnesses also due to viruses, bacteria and protozoa carried by the tick and transmitted by a bite. Recurring fever and malaria-like symptoms are typical.
What follows are some proactive techniques for avoiding the possibilities of the above-mentioned complications.
- Steer clear of thick underbrush and heavily wooded, matted or uncut grassy areas. If you live in a region like this, even your yard may present risks. In the wilderness, stay on the trail and avoid brushing against shrubbery.
- When in high risk outdoor areas, wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts, buttoned at the cuffs and collar and tucked in at the waist and socks. Light colored clothing makes it easier to see ticks, as they are small, dark flecks. Bring a hat for any passages through wooded areas. Check your companions frequently and ask them to do the same for you.
- After being outdoors, undress in front of a mirror and check your body thoroughly (including folds under arms, between legs, behind knees and all over scalp) for poppy seed sized black or dark red flecks. Working with a partner and a hand mirror are also advised. Don’t forget to check your pets, too.
- If you find a tick, remove it with tweezers without mashing it, pulling gently but steadily straight out and without twisting, preferably as close as possible to its mouth and feeders in your skin. Then dab the area of the bite with rubbing alcohol or disinfectant. DO NOT BURN OFF OR ATTEMPT TO REMOVE WITH PETROLEUM JELLY, GASOLINE OR NAIL POLISH. These methods are more likely to destroy the tick, your medical evidence, and force its stomach contents into your bloodstream. Place the tick in a sealed jar for future reference in case you develop symptoms. (As mentioned above, it may be needed for testing.) If you develop symptoms, contact a physician or the local branch of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) immediately for further instructions.
- If you have been in high risk areas and have symptoms but don’t remember a bite, seek medical assistance anyway, as ticks can be so small as to be undetectable to the naked eye and are known to drop off when finished with feeding.
- If you are pregnant, take extra precautions.
Treating an Infection
Standard medical treatment is with antibiotic therapy which is not always entirely effective and may cause spirochete die-off discomfort during the first few days. It also tends to depress antibody formation which may interfere with accurate testing results. Antibiotics often cause secondary yeast infections as a side effect, so physicians and nutritionists often recommend the use of acidophilus supplements. It is imperative that antibiotic therapy be used due to the seriousness of the disease. What follows are some leads from both recent botanical research and traditional herbalism to consider with your health care practitioner along with proper medical attention.
Possible Herbal Preventatives
In the Handbook of Plants with Pest-Control Properties, the following herbs are listed as having pesticidal effects against ticks: yarrow, onion, garlic, dill, horseradish, wormwood, chicory, St. John’s wort, English walnut, lovage, chamomile, mint, parsley, Scotch pine and lemon. This may provide some leads as to protective landscaping and gardening choices, as well as possible uses of essential oils as potential repellents.
Some herbs that may help for Lyme disease and the symptoms that arise from it have various properties. Several herbs that have shown antibacterial qualities in research are yerba santa, goldenrod, garlic, echinacea, astragalus, black walnut, burdock, schizandra and gentian. Horseradish contains hydrogen peroxidase which has demonstrated antibacterial and antioxidant properties and has shown effectiveness against tick-born encephalitis virus. Garlic, gentian and black walnut are also traditionally known as parasiticides. An herbalist reported benefits for her Lyme disease from tobacco leaf which has shown larvicidal and pesticidal activity in scientific studies.
Traditional herbalists draw on "blood cleansing" or detoxifying herbs in parasitic infections, including such favorites as nettles, goldenrod, burdock, yellow dock, red clover, milk thistle, sarsaparilla, dandelion, kelp and alfalfa. These are used in folk herbalism in resolving rashes, arthritic complaints and lymph congestion. Yerba santa is known to folk herbalists as an excellent herb for coughs, sore throats, fevers, chills and colds that may accompany the onset of Lyme disease. Ginger has been well studied as an anti-inflammatory for arthritis and migraines and as a remedy for nausea. It has been shown to have antibacterial effects and pro-biotic properties in supporting healthy intestinal bacterial population, a plus in countering the side effects of antibiotics.
Tick fever is a serious disease that requires the attention of licensed medical and health care practitioners. Unsupervised self-care is not advised or in your best interest!! We hope that this has brought you enlightening information about how to have a safer and healthier summer!
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From Summer 1996 Herbal Insights.
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