It won't be long before summer is here and we start spending more time outdoors with picnics, swimming and walks in the woods.
The latter can be hazardous due to tick-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease, which are on the rise.
From 1995 to 2019, reported cases in people in the U.S. increased from about 12,000 annually to approximately 35,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
But because not all diagnosed cases are reported, the CDC believes the true number of human infections is likely closer to 476,000 per year. In a report last month, the CDC said that babesiosi, another disease spread by ticks, increased 25% nationwide between 2011 and 2019 and this year is endemic in New England.
How do you get it?
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection most commonly transmitted via the bite of infected ticks that attach to any part of the body.
A tick must be attached for 36 to 48 hours or more before the Lyme disease bacterium can be transmitted. If you remove it within 24 hours, the risk is greatly reduced.
People usually find ticks in moist or hairy areas such as the groin, armpits, scalp, and other hard-to-see areas of the body. Campers, hikers, and people who work in gardens and other woody, and brushy areas with high grass and leaf litter, are at the greatest risk of tick bites.
You can remove a tick safely using fine-tipped tweezers to grasp it as close to the skin’s surface as possible and pull it upward with steady, even pressure. Do not twist or jerk the tick as the idea is remove the entire tick in one piece including the mouth parts embedded under the skin.
Thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water.
How do I know if I have it?
Symptoms of Lyme disease include:
- muscle and joint aches
- swollen lymph nodes
Another common symptom is a rash. As many as 80% of infected people may develop a rash. However the characteristic “bulls-eye” rash appears only 20% of the time.
Later-stage symptoms may not appear until weeks or months after a tick bite. They include:
- irregular heartbeat and/or heart palpitations
- arthritis (usually seen as pain and swelling in large joints, especially the knee)
- nervous system abnormalities
Your doctor may recommend treatment with antibiotics before the diagnostic tests are complete. The CDC and other experts say people treated with appropriate antibiotics in the early stages of Lyme disease usually recover rapidly and completely.
When left untreated, the bacterial infection can spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system and cause permanent damage. Lyme disease is rarely fatal.
However, if not treated properly, Lyme disease can become a chronic illness where symptoms might continue for weeks, months, or even years after the initial tick bite.
What can I do to prevent Lyme disease?
Your best bet is to avoid wooded, brushy, and grassy areas, especially during warmer months (April – September), although tick exposure can occur anytime.
Other steps you can take:
- Wear light-colored clothing so that you can see ticks that get on you.
- Treat clothing and gear with products containing 0.5% permethrin.
- Apply insect repellents on uncovered skin, and ensure the products are registered by the Environmental Protection Agency.
- Wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts, and shoes that cover the entire foot.
- Tuck pant legs into socks or shoes, and tuck shirts into pants.
- Wear a hat for extra protection.
- Walk in the center of trails to avoid brush and grass.
- Remove your clothing after being outdoors, and wash and dry them at high temperatures.
- Do a careful body check for ticks after outdoor activities.
Because there are no licensed vaccines available in the U.S. to aid in the prevention of Lyme disease in people, doctors say vigilance is key.