Hitting the trails these days? Don’t forget your tick check

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The outdoors is great for both our physical and mental health. And after being cooped up during the pandemic, we have some catching up to do. But scientists are concerned about a certain critter we need to be aware of while hitting the trails.

News 8’s medical reporter, Dr. Mary Gillis, D.Ed., spoke with Eva Sapi, PhD, professor and director of Lyme disease research at the University of New Haven. Sapi spoke about the effects of Lyme disease, the different kinds of ticks (look out–one type will chase you!) and how you can protect yourself when hiking, biking or strolling through the woods.

Gillis: It is September and we’re heading into the colder months, but it’s still tick season in Indiana. I want to ask you a little about your researcher and is Lyme disease something that someone contracts or gets infected and then overcomes? And how does it affect a person’s immune system?

Sapi: This is a very good question. A lot of people believe that you can just cure it with two weeks of antibiotic treatment and I wish that would be true. Some people, unfortunately, suffer long term. We still need to understand exactly what you asked. How does the Lyme disease affect the immune system? 

One thing we learned is that this bacteria…the Lyme disease bacteria can trick the immune system meaning it makes the immune system not do its job. So, sometimes people have to switch from one antibiotic to another in the future. The disease blocks it, which is very unusual. 

So, yes. There is something strange about this bacteria and we still need to understand what it does to our body. 

Gillis: And there are different types of ticks out there. Can you explain the differences between them and if some are more dangerous than others?

Sapi: One type of tick is the deer tick. But, unfortunately, now there are others. For example, the lone star tick. The lone star tick can actually run after you. It can almost attack you. What we’re trying to understand now is what type of pathogens do they carry? So, what is the risk if you are bitten by different ticks? 

We have a new species…discovered a few years ago, which does show up when you get tested. So, you may have Lyme disease, but your test outcome is negative. And we need to understand more. How many varieties are out there. How many different ticks are out there and what do they carry.

Gillis: Is someone who was infected, but took antibiotics or has Lyme disease now…is their body still considered immunocompromised?

Sapi: That’s a very good question. We talked about how the Lyme bacteria can affect the immune system. But we don’t know how long this lasts and it affects the immune system in a strange way. Does it make us susceptible to other diseases, viruses or pathogens?

Right now, I’m studying the connection between Lyme disease and breast cancer and if it’s possible an immunocompromised body is more susceptible to breast cancer.

Gillis: We go into the woods. We can pull our socks up and have tick spray. What else can we do to protect ourselves? We’re going outside and hiking, which is great. But these ticks are out there. 

Sapi: Especially during this COVID-19 mess because we’re not having much fun. So, one of the activities we can do is go outdoors. I can tell you what we do in our house after a hike. Of course, we use the spray. We wear long pants and white socks and check for them. When we get home the rule is you take your clothes off in the garage and put them immediately in the washer and dryer. Especially because that dry heat kills the ticks. So, we almost have a little procedure when we go for a hike to prevent Lyme disease. 

News 8’s medical reporter, Dr. Mary Elizabeth Gillis, D.Ed., is a classically trained medical physiologist and biobehavioral research scientist. She has been a health, medical and science reporter for over 5 years. Her work has been featured in national media outlets. You can follow her on Instagram @reportergillis and Facebook @DrMaryGillis.