PORTLAND, Ore. — May is “Lyme Disease Awareness Month.” And the infected ticks that spread Lyme aren’t just back east. They’re here in the Pacific Northwest, too.
So, as Oregon and Washington reopen more outdoor recreation areas, it’s a good time to get up to speed on how to protect yourself.
This story is personal for me. My daughter was diagnosed with Lyme. She did a lot of hiking in college in upstate New York and also spent time in the Mount Hood National Forest. We’re not sure where she contracted Lyme but it went undiagnosed for a year even though she saw every doctor under the sun.
She gave me permission to tell her story and share what our family has learned. So I caught up with her doctor, Melanie Stein. She’s a naturopath in Milwaukie who finally solved our medical mystery.
“I think we absolutely need to worry about Lyme disease in the Northwest,” Stein said. “In the last 10 years, more and more ticks are migrating into Oregon and Washington.”
The Western Black Legged Tick— or Ixodes pacificus— is what we have around here. In its immature, or nymph stage, it’s no bigger than a poppy seed but it’s notorious for spreading the bacteria that causes Lyme. And you don't have to head to the forest to find one.
“I actually recently had a patient who had an acute tick bite from their backyard here in Tigard. Last year, I had another patient who had multiple bullseye rashes which is a distinguishing feature of Lyme disease. They were playing in a park in Troutdale.”
Dr. Stein said ticks can also hide in the tall grasses leading to the beach. And at the eastern end of the Gorge in the beautiful wildflower fields that are so popular this time of year.
"There are numerous ticks there," she said. "I was probably having one to three patients a week coming into my office with an acute tick bite form the Gorge. Dog Mountain, actually."
A bullseye rash is a classic symptom-- but not everyone gets it. In the first few days or weeks you may also feel like you have the flu with fever, chills, body aches, and fatigue.
Prevention is key. Wearing long sleeves and long pants when you're hiking. And using insect repellent containing Deet or lemon eucalyptus oil is what Dr. Stein suggests.
Dr. Stein says, “We need to be doing tick checks on our body after a day in the wilderness. Ticks-- they love the hairline, they love crevices” including under your arms or behind your ears or knees.
And if you find one... “Please do not light a match on the tick. Please do not douse it in rubbing alcohol, that actually causes the tick to regurgitate saliva into you and increases the transmission,” Dr. Stein cautions. But if you have a tweezer on you, what you can do is you can grab the tick as close to the head as possible and gently pull up on the body.”
Your pets can also contract Lyme Disease. Dr. Stein recommends getting your dog vaccinated for Lyme if you take them hiking or hunting. Ask your veterinarian if it's right for your pet.
Dr. Stein says you can even carry a little jar to put the ticks in.
"There are different companies like 'TickReport' and 'Ticknology' that will inexpensively test for Lyme. "Not only is this good for you, but it's also good to help spread awareness and help us gather those numbers"' about the prevalence of Lyme in the region. If you do get bitten, Dr. Stein recommends seeing a "Lyme literate" doctor.
Antibiotics can knock out an infection if you find it early. But according to the Johns Hopkins Lyme Disease Researcher Center, late stage Lyme can impact your nervous system, your heart and brain. Dr. Stein says it can be hard to diagnose because it mimics other ailments.
"Lyme is the great imitator," she said. A lot of my patients have been diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. If you as a patient have been to several physicians, you haven't found an answer, they're diagnosing you with the word "syndrome." Look into Lyme.”
My daughter is making progress fighting Lyme but it's a long haul. Getting the right diagnosis and treatment makes all the difference. And if you-- or someone you know is searching for answers-- let that be reason to hope.