Of the many possible hazards and problems that can befall hikers on the trail, two of the most annoying are poison ivy and ticks. Contact with poison ivy can leave you with an uncomfortable oozing rash, while the bite of a deer tick can be potentially dangerous to your health.
A little knowledge about both will go a long way toward a safe and enjoyable hike, so here’s a synopsis of each, some precautionary measures and treatment options.
Ticks are most common along the coast, and in the woods and fields of interior southern and central Maine, although they also can be found in the western mountains. Of the 15 species of ticks found here, the deer tick and dog tick are the most prevalent.
Deer ticks are the most troublesome because they can transmit the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. In the early stages, flu-like symptoms may appear, as well as an expanding bull’s-eye or rash around the site of the bite. Detected early, Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics. Left untreated, this serious disease can spread to joints, the heart and the nervous system, and lead to chronic health issues.
Deer ticks also can cause anaplasmosis, babesiosis and powassan encephalitis, and while serious, these diseases are markedly less frequent in Maine to date.
Ticks lurk in the woods, brush and tall grass along the trail. They attach themselves to your clothing as you walk by and then travel upward looking for a suitable patch of skin. Wear light-colored clothing so you can more easily see the little buggers and pick them off. Tuck your pant legs into your socks and your shirt into your pants to keep them out.
On exposed skin, use a repellent containing DEET or picaridin. Treat your clothing with permethrin, or purchase clothing impregnated with permethrin. This insecticide both repels and kills ticks, and lasts through multiple washings. Cautionary note: permethrin in concentration is toxic to cats, so use care around your feline friends.
Upon returning home, a personal tick check is essential. Carefully examine each other, your pets and clothing. Placing your clothing in the dryer for 10 minutes on high heat will kill any ticks.
To remove an attached tick, use a tick spoon or fine-tipped tweezers. Grasp the tick close to the skin and slowly pull straight out. Place the removed tick in a plastic bag and put in the freezer or into alcohol for possible identification purposes later. Notify your doctor right away and discuss what medical attention, if any, may be required.
PESTY POISON IVY
Poison ivy is a woody perennial that grows as an erect or trailing shrub or vine. Found throughout Maine, poison ivy generally has very shiny, dark green leaves that shine in the sun but are dull in the shade, although it can present itself in slightly different ways that can fool the casual observer (many hikers also confuse wild sarsaparilla with poison ivy, causing undue stress.).
This pesky plant has an alternate compound leaf composed of three 2- to 4-inch leaflets, two opposite leaflets and a larger middle leaflet. The leaflets may be hairy or smooth, and the margins can be toothed, lobed or smooth.
Direct contact with the oil (urushiol, an allergen) from the leaves, roots, stems, flowers or fruit of poison ivy, or indirect contact from an object that has been in contact with the plant, may result in an allergic skin rash that usually appears from 8 to 48 hours after contact. Symptoms include itchy skin and a red area or red streaks, small bumps or larger raised areas and fluid-filled blisters.
On the trail, wash the contact area with biodegradable soap and water (away from any water sources) or use hand sanitizer to clean the area of the offending oil if soap isn’t available. The next step is to apply a topical cortisone cream or calamine lotion, or perhaps take an over-the-counter oral antihistamine, to relive itching and inflammation. In severe cases a prescription steroid may be necessary.
Learn to positively identify poison ivy, watch where you step and avoid blindly crashing through the trailside brush (often done in a hurry for personal reasons) and you likely will avoid the worst of it.