As predicted, Lyme disease cases are increasing in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 25,000 Americans will get the disease this year.
If you live in or visit New England, the mid-Atlantic states, and the upper Midwest, your risk of the disease is greatest. If you live in rural or suburban areas with high concentrations of deer, the risk is even more severe.
That's because Lyme disease is spread primarily through bites by blacklegged ticks whose favorite food is the blood of deer. A close second is your or your pet's blood.
But Lyme disease is not the only threat you have to worry about from ticks. Another type of tick, the lone star tick, can spread infectious diseases like Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Unfortunately, the lone star tick has been on the move recently, spreading out from its native south and southwestern environs.
Ticks on the move
"Lone star ticks become more and more widespread every year, as they continue to infiltrate states where they have never before been present," said Dr. Michael Dryden, distinguished professor of veterinary parasitology at Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine.
The latest data reveals lone star tick populations today as far north as New York, Maine – even Ontario, Canada – and as far west as Nebraska. In fact, they now share much the same turf as their Lyme disease-carrying brethren. Both are very bad news.
"The lone star tick is a very aggressive tick, and it actively seeks out people and pets to feed on," said Dr. Michael J. Yabsley, associate professor at the University of Georgia. "It's one of the most common ticks that people find on themselves and their dogs, so everyone should take precautions – especially in the new areas of invasion."
Know where they hide
To avoid the diseases ticks carry you need to know where to find these tiny insects. Ticks generally like moist, humid environments in or near grassy or wooded areas. You may come into contact with ticks during outdoor activities around your home or when walking through vegetation. On nature hikes, walk in the center of trails and avoid tall vegetation.
Experts at the CDC also advise using a repellent with DEET on skin or clothing. Repellents containing 20% or more DEET can be applied to the skin and they can protect up to several hours. Always follow product instructions.
Parents should apply repellents to their children, making sure you don't get it on hands, eyes and mouth. Products containing permethrin can be used to treat boots, clothing, and camping gear. Treated items can remain protective through several washings.
Lyme disease infection is usually marked by a large, red bulls-eye rash around the bite, but not always. Sometimes the first sign that you are infected is when you observed the symptoms; fatigue, chills, fever, headache, muscle and joint aches and swollen lymph nodes.
The symptoms for Rocky Mountain spotted fever are similar to those of Lyme disease but the infection is more lethal. Last week a six-year-old North Carolina girl died from Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Doctors say the child was bitten by a tick when the family visited Texas over the Memorial Day weekend.
To reduce the risk of disease from ticks, keep pets inoculated with an effective flea and tick preventive, since pets often bring ticks into contact with humans.
"By the time you notice ticks on dogs, it's often too late," said Dryden. "All it takes is one bite."
What to do
If you find a tick on your body, remove it as quickly as possible, but using care. The CDC provides these instructions:
- Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin's surface as possible.
- Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don't twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouth parts to break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, remove the mouth parts with tweezers. If you are unable to remove the mouth easily with clean tweezers, leave it alone and let the skin heal.
- After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water.