by Joni Astrup
When Rick Dahlman was working as a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources forester, there were many days when he would find more than 200 ticks on himself.
Eventually, a tick would leave a lasting impact on his life after he was diagnosed with Lyme disease – a tick-borne ailment – 30 years ago.
“I’ve had problems with Lyme disease since 1987 and I still have problems,” he said during a presentation Monday at the Elk River Library.
Symptoms come and go. Dahlman said he has experienced severe pain next to his spine, has lost mobility in his neck and shoulder, and has suffered from chronic fatigue.
Early on, he had a severe headache for 24 hours a day, seven days a week that lasted for more than two years.
He didn’t develop a rash – a well-known sign of Lyme disease – and said only about half of people with Lyme disease get a rash.
Dahlman was on antibiotics for 4 1/2 years, but the effects of Lyme disease linger today.
“It’s a really nasty disease,” he said.
Now retired from the DNR, Dahlman is chairman of the Minnesota Lyme Association’s Speakers Bureau. He speaks to groups and teaches people how to reduce their risk of tick-borne diseases.
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection transmitted through the bite of an infected blacklegged tick, which is known in Minnesota as the deer tick and in Wisconsin as the bear tick. The tick’s scientific name is Ixodes scapularis.
It is tiny. The adult tick is the size of a sesame seed and the nymph is as small as a poppy seed.
Lyme disease is found on every continent except Antarctica and has been around for a long time, Dahlman said. The frozen body of a man found in a glacier in the Italian Alps in 1991 and believed to be more than 5,000 years old even had Lyme disease.
It wasn’t until 1975, however, that Lyme disease was first recognized in the United States, after a mysterious outbreak of arthritis near Lyme, Connecticut, according to the CDC.
Minnesota a Lyme disease hot spot
Minnesota and Wisconsin are among the states with the most cases of Lyme disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC noted in 2015 that 95 percent of confirmed Lyme disease cases were reported from 14 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia.
Lyme disease cases are found in all 87 counties in Minnesota, though more are reported in some parts of the state than in others. Sherburne County is considered a high-risk area for tick-borne disease, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
The number of Lyme disease cases reported in Minnesota spiked from 252 in 1996 to 1,431 in 2013.
The CDC estimates as many as 300,000 Americans are diagnosed with Lyme disease each year, Dahlman said.
Despite Minnesota’s harsh winters, he said there’s a chance of getting Lyme disease year-round. Ticks can be brought indoors on firewood or become active outdoors during mid-winter thaws.
Ticks will be active any time they warm up above 40 degrees, he said.
“The risk (of Lyme disease) is higher this time of year, but there is no safe month,” he said.
Most people are infected by Lyme disease in April, May or June and then see a doctor in mid-summer, he said. Forty percent of Lyme disease cases are reported in July, he said.
Treated clothing is one option
Pesticides can reduce the number of ticks in a yard, but they also kill other insects like butterflies.
Another option is clothing. Dahlman wears clothing treated with permethrin, a chemical that kills ticks. If you spray your clothing with permethrin, Dahlman said it will last five to six washings. Or, you can buy clothing already treated with permethrin that will last for 40 to 50 washings, he said.
After being in an area with ticks, Dahlman advises putting your clothes in the dryer to kill any ticks on them. Then take a shower, scrubbing vigorously to remove any ticks. Follow that up with a body check for any ticks.
“The sooner you get ticks off of you, the less likely they’re going to be able to transmit a disease to you,” he said.
How to avoid ticks
The best way to prevent Lyme disease is to avoid ticks, according to Dr. Elizabeth Maloney, medical advisor to the Minnesota Lyme Association.
In a publication titled “Lyme Disease: Awareness and Prevention,” Maloney said many people become infected with Lyme disease around their home. She offered these tips:
•Keep grass short.
•Clear away brush and fallen leaves.
•Place lawn furniture and play structures in sunny areas of the yard.
•Bird feeders and wood piles attract tick-carrying mice so keep them far from the house.
•Don’t feed deer or use plants that attract them.
•Pets that go outdoors can bring ticks indoors; perform tick checks and ask your veterinarian for a list of tick products for your pet.
Additionally, Maloney advises people to stay out of tick habitat, especially areas with long grass, and lots of brush or leaf litter. When hiking or biking, stay in the center of trails and don’t sit on fallen logs.
Ticks crawl out to the tip of a blade of grass or twig and grab onto a host when it brushes by them, according to Dahlman. They do not jump or fall from trees, he said.