It’s only April but tick activity--which normally peaks in the Summer--is already in high gear. This is particularly worrisome in the Northeast and other parts of the U.S. where blacklegged ticks (also called deer ticks) may carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.
Experts say the mild winter together with fewer acorns and white-footed mice equals a bumper crop of hungry ticks in search of a meal. With fewer mice to feed on, the ticks are more likely to feed on humans. And that, say health officials means an increased risk of contracting Lyme disease.
Preventing Lyme Disease
If you live in any of the high-risk areas, you should take precautions to prevent infection.
- Wear light colored, tightly woven clothing with long sleeves when walking in wooded areas so the ticks can be seen more easily.
- Wear your shirt tucked into your pants, and your pants tucked into your socks or boots.
- Walk in the center of trails through the woods to avoid picking up ticks from overhanging grass and brush.
- Keep grass trimmed as short as possible.
- Apply tick repellents with DEET to your clothing, shoes and socks before going out. Another tick repellent called permethrin, designed to be placed on the clothing can be used alone or in combination with DEET. (Use these repellents with caution as they can cause serious side effects, particularly when high concentrations are used repeatedly on the skin. Infants and children may be especially at risk for adverse reactions.)
- Check yourself, your family, and your pets routinely for ticks, especially after a trip outdoors.
- Shower and shampoo your hair if you think you may have been exposed to ticks.
- Check your clothes for ticks and wash them immediately in order to remove any ticks.
If you are bitten by a tick, remove the tick carefully:
- Tug gently but firmly with blunt tweezers near the “head” of the tick until it releases its hold on the skin.
- To lessen the chance of contact with the bacterium, try not to crush the tick’s body or handle the tick with bare fingers.
- Swab the bite area thoroughly with an antiseptic to prevent infection.
- Contrary to popular wisdom, DO NOT use kerosene, Vaseline, fingernail polish, or a cigarette butt to remove the tick.
- DO NOT squeeze the tick’s body with your fingers or tweezers.
Anyone who has been bitten by a tick should be watched closely for at least 30 days.
Signs/Symptoms of Infection
- In about 70 - 80% of cases, the first symptom is a tell-tale rash at the site of the bite that looks somewhat like a “bulls-eye.” The rash starts as a small red spot that expands over a period of days or weeks. The rash can range in size from a dime to the entire width of a person's body. As infection spreads, several rashes can appear at different sites on the body.
- Many experience flu-like symptoms that include a fever, chills, headache, stiff neck, swollen lymph nodes, fatigue and muscle aches.
- After several weeks of infection without treatment, about 60% of those infected will begin to experience bouts of arthritis (painful, swollen joints) that last a few days to a few months. The knee is most commonly affected but pain may shift from one joint to another.
- As Lyme disease progresses, it can also cause neurological symptoms such as meningitis, Bell’s palsy, numbness, pain or weakness in the limbs, or poor coordination. Other more subtle symptoms such as memory loss, mood changes, trouble concentrating or sleep disorders may occur.
- Fewer than one out of 10 Lyme disease patients develop heart problems, such as an irregular, slow heartbeat that can cause dizziness or shortness of breath.
Diagnosis and Treatment
The easiest way for a doctor to diagnose Lyme disease is the presence of the bull's-eye rash. If there is no visible rash, as is sometimes the case, the doctor may order a blood test three to four weeks after the onset of the suspected infection to look for antibodies against the bacteria.
In its early stages, Lyme disease can be effectively treated with oral antibiotics. In general, the sooner such therapy is begun following infection, the quicker and more complete the recovery. Antibiotics can usually prevent subsequent symptoms such as arthritis or neurological problems. In the later stages of the disease, intravenous antibiotics may be used for more serious cases.