THE HORROR OF SESAME SEEDS: HIKERS, LYME DISEASE, AND TIPS TO SURVIVE AND THRIVE
Words & Photos by Matthew Morelli
They are tiny; they are everywhere. Drop your guard a little while exhausted in the backcountry or just while walking your dog at the park, and it can have life-changing implications. Lyme Disease is a bacterium carried by deer ticks that, at their biggest, reach the size of a sesame seed. Short term symptoms can include rashes and flu-like symptoms, while long term symptoms can consist of terrifying things like facial palsy and swelling in your central nervous system. Sounds scary? Good, it absolutely should. Sounds impossible to avoid? Not so much. Knowledge, prevention, and detection are the keys to recreating happily and living freely amongst these little vampires.
The first step to getting ahead of Lyme Disease is to understand a bit of the nature of the disease and how it spreads. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no evidence of the bacteria that causes Lyme Disease to spread through means other than ticks, specifically, black-legged ticks, more commonly called deer ticks. There are two species of black-legged ticks, the eastern and the western, and both can infect humans. The most common time of year to be infected is Spring and Summer, when the smaller juveniles, or nymphs, are feeding to grow to their next life stage.
Named after Lyme, Connecticut, it is no surprise that the Northeast is a hotbed for infected ticks. The states at highest risk are the eastern seaboard north of and including Virginia; upper North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, and parts of Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky. Infected ticks can be found down in Everglades National Park of southern Florida, clear to Olympic National Park of western Washington, and cases have been spreading for years.
CLICK HERE FOR AN INTERACTIVE CASE MAP FROM THE LYME DISEASE ASSOCIATION
When ticks are feeding, they act much the same as an ambush predator does. They climb to the very tips of grass, leaves, branches, and shrubs where animals are likely to brush past. They quickly hop on to their meal and crawl to a good feeding spot before cutting the skin and inserting a feeding tube. It can take anywhere from several minutes to a couple of hours from contact to feeding and up to a few days before they have consumed their fill. It is during this feeding stage that infection can take place. Once satisfied, ticks drop off their meal to carry out the next stage of their life. It should be noted that ticks are not hatched infected, but they themselves become infected while feeding on previously infected animals.
So, now that we have some background on the little bastards, let's talk about backcountry tips for preventing these little bastards from ever getting a hold of us.
Your first reaction may be to run for the nearest supply of Deet, but that feels like using napalm for hair removal. The stuff works, but it's severely harsh. So harsh in fact that you run a significant risk of melting some of your equipment. Say goodbye to that $350 Gore-Tex jacket. Instead, I use Sawyer's Picaridin insect repellent products, which are guaranteed not to harm your gear. Though it is supposed to protect up to 12 hours, I usually reapply every six, especially if I am sweating like a sinner in church. I mainly target places where I am likely to first come into contact with ticks, such as legs and arms but focus mostly on where they like to feed, which are warm moist places. Think backs of legs, armpits, hairline, and where your pack rests on you. I find it to be an effective measure for both ticks and mosquitos.
To further my protection, I also use Sawyer's Permethrin spray for treating my clothes, shoes, Junction pack, quilt, and anything else I find important. It is especially important to use this at the openings of clothes or where your body is warm and moist, i.e., crotch, armpits. This stuff is the real deal and lasts for up to six weeks or six washes. Best of all, it is entirely non-toxic.
Picking the right trails at the right time of year is another good first step to tick prevention. I have turned back on more than one hiking trip due to the risk of infection being higher than I liked. Lesser used and maintained trails might be better during the shoulder seasons when the undergrowth is more contained, and the smallest ticks are unlikely to be feeding.
Picking the right campsite can be equally as important, especially for those who like cowboy camping or the minimalism of a tarp. That nice grassy spot is also prime real estate for ticks. Leaf cover is another very popular habitat for ticks, so clearing debris from your campsite, or better yet, sleeping on already cleared and worn in sites, is a good practice for tick prevention when your guard is down the most.
If you ever get into legitimate backcountry where aid or rescue may be a serious need, a signaling mirror is a good thing to have. It is also helpful for checking those hard to see places to see if any hitchhikers have found their way to your nether regions. Another solid option is turning your phone's camera to selfie mode and analyze the photos. Keep in mind, you are looking for something that is likely smaller than a sesame seed, so be extremely thorough, and get to know yourself better than you would really ever want to. Just make sure to delete the photos afterward, so you don't accidentally Anthony Weiner yourself. If you have a backcountry partner, do regular inspections on each other, just don't, like, make it weird, dude. This is the best way to ensure you don't become infected, as it usually takes many hours for the bacteria to end up in your body.
If you do find a tick latched to you, it still is not the end of the world. Items like tick keys are very useful for removing ticks, but a simple set of tweezers will also do the trick. When using tweezers, grab the tick as close to the skin as possible and slowly pull straight up so as not to break off the feeding tube or mouthparts. Be mindful as to where exactly the tick latched on and watch for any irregularities on your skin for the next several weeks. The most common of these irregularities would be the classic "bullseye" pattern associated with Lyme Disease infections. Rashes can come in all shapes, sizes, and degrees of intensity, as seen in this photo of beloved Hyperlite Mountain Gear customer service team member Dylan and his calf during his AT thru hike in 2017.
Dylan's tale of battling Lyme Disease while his body was already strained with the monumental task of supporting a thru hike left him asleep for 25 hours straight. He spent several more days in a hotel in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, quite ill with body aches, fevers, and general exhaustion before he was able to push on and catch up with the rest of us. He was only able to do so because his antibiotics were able to take hold and wrangle the bacteria.
And that is the silver lining in all of this; even if all other precautions fail, knowing what to look out for and early treatment more often than not means short term effects before the bacteria is knocked out. Most people treated with the right antibiotics early on see a full recovery. After long trips in high-risk areas, like an AT thru hike, it is a good idea to get bloodwork done even without symptoms to ensure symptoms don't pop up months or years down the road. So be prepared, stay vigilant, and sleep soundly at night.
For more information on Lyme Disease, visit the CDC's page here.
Matthew Morelli is a thru hiker, route finder, peak bagger, mountain runner, and a photojournalism student at the University of Georgia. He is aspiring to be a jack-of-all and a master-of-some when it comes to human-powered sports. See more of his work at www.mmorellicompositions.com.