Whether you’re a new mom or still expecting, it’s never too early to be diligent about Lyme disease prevention. It’s especially important this year. Health experts are reporting a surge in the number of Lyme-carrying ticks and forecast that the summer of 2017 could be the worst tick season ever. It’s important that you do everything possible to ensure you’re protected from the black-legged ticks that transmit Lyme disease and many co-infections.
What exactly is Lyme disease?
It is the most common vector-borne illness in the U.S., with more than 329,000 new cases each year. Lyme has been found in all 50 states and on every continent except for Antartica. Often hard to diagnose and tricky to treat, Lyme disease can cause symptoms ranging from muscle aches, fatigue and headaches to serious and long-term complications that affect the brain, nerves, joints, muscles and heart.
Named after the Connecticut town where the first outbreak was discovered, Lyme is the most common illness carried by ticks, but it isn’t the only one. Ticks can also spread several other diseases, including anaplasmosis, babesiosis, and the extremely rare Powassan virus. “Compounding the Lyme crisis are at least 16 other tick-associated human diseases in the United States,” says Kirby Stafford, Ph.D., Chief Scientist, State Entomologist of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. “Tick-bite prevention and tick control continues to be more important than ever.”
When to protect yourself from Lyme disease?
June to early August is prime time for ticks because the insect-like creatures are in their hungry “nymph” stage. The tiny black-legged ticks, no larger than a poppy seed, transmit Lyme or its co-infections after feeding on animals such as deer, mice, squirrels and other rodents that are infected with the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi. Their tiny size makes it difficult to detect them on one’s clothing or skin. Because their bite is painless, they can attach to the skin and feed on an individual’s blood—often unnoticed—for days. They also tend to attach themselves to parts of the body that aren’t readily seen, like the armpits, groin, behind the knee and scalp.
Lyme may be identified after a tick bite by an expanding rash that looks like a bull’s eye. But less than 50 percent of those infected actually develop one. Even after a tick bite, it can take weeks for antibodies against Lyme to show up, so early blood diagnostic tests can misleadingly turn up false negatives.
“That’s why,” said Scott Santarella, CEO of Global Lyme Alliance, (GLA), “if you develop what seems like a summertime ‘flu’ with fatigue, joint pain and headaches—especially within weeks of being in rural or suburban areas—it’s important you see a doctor and get tested for Lyme and other tick-borne illnesses.” There is currently no fool-proof diagnostic test for Lyme, but to get the most accurate blood testing results possible, ask your physician for both the ELISA and Western Blot tests.
When caught early, Lyme can usually be treated successfully with antibiotics. But if the infection is not diagnosed and treated early—or if treatment isn’t effective—the infection can hide in your body, causing serious, long-term complications that affect every major bodily organ.
Of course, the only sure way to prevent Lyme and other tick-borne infections is to avoid being bitten by a tick. “It’s extremely important that people be alert and protect themselves against ticks,” said Santarella. “Lyme disease can cause serious and debilitating health problems.”
To protect yourself and decrease risk, here are 10 important actions you can take:
- Whenever possible, avoid tick habitats. Ticks thrive in moist, shady areas and cling to tall grass, brush and shrubs. They also live in overgrown grassy areas and gardens, especially at the edges of woods and around old stone walls. Walk or bike in the middle of trails and don’t sit on the ground, on fallen logs or lean against stone walls.
- Cover up. When gardening, hiking or camping wear light-colored long pants and long sleeve shirts so ticks can be more easily spotted. Tuck your pants into socks and your shirt into your pants to keep ticks from sneaking into exposed areas. Wear a hat and closed-toe shoes. Keep long hair tied back, especially when gardening.
- Repel the ticks. Use a DEET-containing insect repellent on exposed skin. Don’t spray it directly on your face; spray it instead on your hands and then apply it to your face. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, oil of lemon eucalyptus, a more natural product, can also be used.
- Use tick-repellent on clothing. Spray permethrin-containing products on your clothing. Permethrin is a repellent that kills ticks on contact. You can also buy clothing pre-treated with Permethrin from companies such as Insect Shield, REI, Columbia and L.L. Bean.
- Spray shoes. Since ticks crawl upward, make sure you spray tick repellent on all your shoes as ticks will latch on to your shoe laces and crawl up your leg. Permethrin should not be applied to the skin.
- Quick dry clothing. After spending time outdoors, toss your clothes in a dryer on high heat for 10 minutes and then wash them. Washing clothes in hot water will not kill ticks—only dry heat will.
- Inspect and shower. Tick bites are painless so it’s important for you and family members to perform full-body tick checks (especially thighs, groin, back of knees, around waistbands, underarms, neck and scalp) after being outdoors. Shower after doing a tick inspection.
- Change the landscape. Keep your garden and property as close to a tick-free habitat as possible. Since ticks like it moist and shady, create open, sunny areas. Clear leaf litter and brush piles and remove shrubs and groundcover (like pachysandra) near the house.
- Protect pets. There are numerous topical sprays and spot-ons on the market today to protect your pets from tick-borne diseases. Groom your pet after a romp outdoors to find and remove ticks that could pose a risk to you or your family as well as your pet.
- Remove the tick. If you find a tick, it's important to remove it immediately. Use a fine-tipped tweezer to grab the tick “head” as close to the skin as possible and pull it out like a splinter. Don’t twist or jerk the tick because this can cause the tick’s mouth-parts to break off and remain in your skin.
And remember it’s important to see a physician if a you start to have flulike symptoms or a suspicious rash appears.
Article provided by Global Lyme Alliance, the nation’s leading nonprofit dedicated to conquering Lyme and tick-borne diseases through research, education and awareness. For detailed information on best ways to protect yourself, children and pets from Lyme and other tick-borne diseases, go to Global Lyme Alliance’s website at GLA.org.