If you live in or even visit an area where there are grassy fields, bushes, and animals like deer, rabbits, squirrels, birds, and mice, you are probably at some risk of acquiring Lyme disease or another type of tick-borne disease.
For the ticks that carry disease, these animals serve as the hosts whose blood they feed on. When a tick has had enough, it drops off and waits for the next host, who just might be you. Animal hosts also allow ticks to travel, not only from one field or patch of woods to another but, increasingly, into more U.S. states. As a result, the number of cases of Lyme and other tick-borne diseases has increased sharply in the United States, and these diseases are also spreading rapidly across many regions of the world.
Lyme disease, by far the most common tick-borne disease in the United States, was first described in southern New England (near Lyme, Connecticut) in 1975. It soon was reported in southeastern New York, the Mid-Atlantic states, and parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota as well. In the last 20 years, reports of Lyme disease also have become common in expanded areas within these states, nearby states, and even in parts of Canada.
Lyme disease is caused by Borrelia burgdorferi or Borrelia mayonii bacteria. It is best known for its classic symptom, the “bull’s-eye” rash known as erythema migrans. However, it can affect multiple body systems during different stages of the disease. If you have the distinctive rash or have a laboratory test that comes back positive for Lyme disease, your doctor probably will prescribe a simple two-week course of oral antibiotics. For most people, symptoms go away after treatment. But others suffer lingering effects or never get a clear diagnosis.
The purpose of this guide is to examine the challenges of prevention and diagnosis of tick-borne diseases and to help you seek the most appropriate treatment for your symptoms. We’ll examine ticks, their life cycles, and some of the diseases they spread, such as babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. And we’ll take a close look at Lyme disease, including diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.
- A growing threat
- The big tick problem
- Who gets Lyme disease?
- Stage 1 Lyme disease
- Stage 2 Lyme disease
- Stage 3 Lyme disease
- Post–Lyme disease syndrome
- Other tick-borne diseases
- Preventing tick-borne diseases
Tick bite prevention tips
Although prompt removal of ticks can prevent transmission of Lyme, the best way to avoid tick-borne disease is to prevent bites. Taking the following steps can help protect you and your family.
Know when you are at highest risk. Use particular caution when walking through fields or meadows where there is grass that grows taller than your socks and hikes where you will be brushing up against bushes, leaves, or trees. Typically, ticks are transmitted from leaves or blades of grass on the ground to the legs, where the ticks crawl up.
Wear protective garments. The best protection is long pants tucked into socks to keep ticks from crawling up under the pant leg. Lighter-colored clothing can make ticks easier to see.
Use repellents. Treat clothes with permethrin (Nix, Rid) to repel ticks and discourage them from attaching. Treating skin with DEET products may be helpful as well. Follow directions carefully. Inspect each other. Have a partner check you for ticks, to look in those dark areas where it’s hard to see. Pay special attention to the armpits, neck, scalp, ears, backs of the knees, groin, and navel (belt area). An adult I. scapularis tick is about the size of a sesame seed.
Remember that ticks don’t bite right away. They crawl around on the skin looking for the best place to settle. This gives you an opportunity to get rid ofthem first. After you come inside from outdoors, take off all clothes and put them straight in the dryer on high heat for 10 minutes to kill any ticks that may be on them. Then get in the shower to allow water to simply wash away any unattached ticks that may be crawling around on your skin.
Remove ticks. If you do find an attached tick on the body, remove it as quickly as possible to prevent the risk of transmission of B. burgdorferi.
Tick-borne diseases are becoming more common, and the range of affected areas is spreading. Your best chance of avoiding the potentially serious long-term consequences of these diseases is to practice protective measures when you go outdoors to keep ticks from having the opportunity to bite, and to do routine tick checks when you come back inside.
If you do find and remove a tick, consult with a doctor if you think it might have been attached for more than a day or so. Finally, if you do develop the characteristic bull’s-eye rash or other signs of Lyme or another tick-borne illness, seek medical attention immediately.
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