Tick Talk – Take Steps to Lower Your Risk for Lyme Disease

Summertime has arrived, and with it comes swimming, hiking, outdoor traveling … and ticks. If you enjoy hiking, gardening, or engaging in pretty much any outdoor activity, there are some things you should be aware of to help prevent tick-borne illness.

Ticks are arachnids, with eight legs, just like their spider cousins. They do not jump, fly, or fall from trees; rather, they crawl from grasses onto the legs of animals and humans, clothing, and boots. Ticks feed on the blood of animals, mainly white-footed mice and deer. If infected with bacteria, viruses, or parasites, a biting tick poses a risk to human health.

Ticks are most often found living in places where small rodents are active, such as stone walls, under leaves or brush, in tall grassy fields and pastures, in woodlots, along borders between homes and woods, and around building foundations where there is shrubbery, foliage, or tall grass.

Scientists are predicting the warm, humid summer months could bring an unusual abundance of ticks and tick-borne illnesses this summer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported nationwide each year, while studies suggest the actual number of people diagnosed with Lyme disease is more likely about 300,000.

Many people don’t realize they are at risk. Now is a good time to learn, and employ, prevention techniques. There are some simple steps you can take to reduce your chance of being bit by ticks this summer.

According to the American Lyme Disease Foundation (ALDF), Lyme disease is an infection caused by Borrelia burgdorferi, a type of bacterium called a spirochete (pronounced spy-ro-keet) that is carried by deer ticks.

“An infected tick can transmit the spirochete to the humans and animals it bites.” according to the ALDF. “Untreated, the bacterium travels through the bloodstream, establishes itself in various body tissues, and can cause a number of symptoms, some of which are severe. Lyme disease manifests itself as a multi-system inflammatory disease that affects the skin in its early, localized stage, and spreads to the joints, nervous system, and, to a lesser extent, other organ systems in its later, disseminated stages. If diagnosed and treated early with antibiotics, it is almost always readily cured.

“Generally, LD in its later stages can also be treated effectively,” the ALDF notes, “but because the rate of disease progression and individual response to treatment varies from one patient to the next, some patients may have symptoms that linger for months or even years following treatment. In rare instances, Lyme disease causes permanent damage.”

When you’re bit by a tick, you won’t necessarily see a bull’s-eye type of rash, as is commonly thought. A tick bite could manifest in the form of a persistent rash, bump, or red spot on the skin. If you question such an area, have it checked out by your doctor.

Some infected people don’t have any symptoms, while others experience joint pain, muscle soreness, flu-like cold symptoms, or general achiness. If you experience symptoms out of the ordinary for you, see your doctor to find out whether Lyme, or another tick-borne illness, could be the culprit.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides tips for removing an embedded tick from your body: grasp it with fine-tipped tweezers as close to the skin as possible; pull upward with steady, even pressure to keep the tick intact; and clean the bite site and your hands thoroughly with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water. Place the tick in a baggie and seal it with tape, or flush the tick down the toilet. The CDC recommends checking with your doctor before sending a tick on for testing.

Other prevention tips from the CDC include:

  • Avoid the border areas between lawns and woods, which is where ticks make their habitats;
  • Use tick repellent on your body (with DEET) and clothing (with permethrin);
  • Don’t let your dog off leash, instead keeping them in the middle of trails;
  • Tuck your pants into your socks or boots when hiking in the woods or field areas;
  • Shower as soon as possible after coming in from outdoors;
  • Do regular full-body tick checks of yourself, your children, spouse, etc.;
  • Check your pets, gear, and backpacks for crawling ticks;
  • Around the home, try to create a tick-safe zone: clear brush, leaves, and tall grasses; mow the lawn frequently; stack wood in a dry area; and discourage unwelcome animals such as deer, raccoons, and stray dogs; and
  • Tumble-dry clothing in a dryer on high heat for at least 10 minutes (this kills ticks, whereas cold or medium temperatures do not).

Dr. Amy Jaworek is an infectious-disease and primary-care physician at Holyoke Medical Center.