Lyme disease-bearing deer ticks are out there, so it’s a good idea whenever you go outdoors, especially in the warmer months, to check yourself and your family.
Lyme disease is caused by bacteria passed to people through the bite of an infected deer tick. The disease can be mistaken for other illnesses, such as the flu or mononucleosis, but is easily treated with antibiotics in its early stage. Left untreated, however, the bacteria can lie dormant for months before causing arthritic, neurological and cardiovascular problems, such as swollen and painful joints, muscle paralysis and chest pains.
Lyme disease, which was first recognized 25 years ago in Lyme, Conn., has become the most common disease caused by a bite in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recorded more than 128,000 cases of Lyme disease, including an all-time high of 16,802 new cases in 1998. Cases have been reported throughout the United States, but most have occurred in New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Rhode Island, Maryland, Minnesota and Delaware.
How can you tell if you’re infected?
About 70 percent of infected people are bitten in their own yards, says David Weld, executive director of the American Lyme Disease Foundation. “I always tell people if you find one tick on you, there are lots more out there,” Weld says.
It’s very easy to have been bitten and infected by a tick without ever knowing it and to overlook the early warning signs. The baby ticks – called nymphs – that usually transmit the disease are about the size of a pinhead. And the first symptoms – fever, fatigue, headache, body aches and joint pain – can last for two or three days before disappearing.
However, in 70 to 80 percent of cases, an infected person will notice a red circular rash, Weld says. This bull’s-eye-shaped rash usually appears in three to 30 days at the site of the tick bite and can last for two or three weeks, Weld says.
“If you have a rash, you have Lyme disease and you should be treated immediately,” Weld says.
If you believe a tick has bitten you, avoid overtreatment with antibiotics. Hold off seeking medical treatment unless symptoms arise, Weld says. Most ticks do not carry the bacteria and even if an infected tick bites you, your risk of acquiring Lyme disease is only about 10 percent, Weld says. An infected tick needs to be attached to your body for about 48 hours to transmit the disease, according to the CDC.
How to reduce your risk
Weld is a great believer in a daily head-to-toe examination for ticks. When you do a “tick check,” make sure you examine the insect’s favorite resting spots – your groin, armpits, navel, waistline, neck, scalp and backs of the knees.
“They like tight, moist areas where blood vessels are close to the skin,” Weld says. “Once they get on you, they will find a nice spot. They can be almost anywhere.”
The following practices also can cut your risk of getting Lyme disease:
Avoid tick-infested areas. Wooded areas are more likely to harbor ticks, particularly in May, June and July. “This is without question the most dangerous time of the year,” Weld says. If you’re hiking in the woods, stay in the middle of the trail.
Keep your yard clean, and your grass cut short. Ticks do not like direct sunlight, so cutting and clearing of brush and tall grass outside your house may help to lower the tick population, Weld says. You also can contact a professional to spray your yard each year with an insecticide.
Protect yourself. When outdoors, wear long-sleeved shirts and closed-toed shoes. Wearing light-colored clothing gives you a better chance of spotting ticks that try to latch onto you. Tuck your pants legs into your socks or boots, and tuck in your shirt. Keep long hair tied back, and wear a hat.
Apply insect repellent containing DEET, but avoid putting DEET on babies.
Talk to your doctor about being vaccinated. A vaccine approved in 1998 for people ages 15 to 70 is 80 percent effective after three doses.