The illnesses read like an alphabet: anaplasmosis, babesiosis, Lyme, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia. Now that spring has sprung, we could all use a refresher on how to protect ourselves from these tick-borne diseases.
In the northeast United States, Lyme disease is the most commonly reported on tick-borne illness. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention estimates that about 300,000 people in the US are diagnosed annually with Lyme disease, which is caused by deer ticks.
In Massachusetts, there were 5,600 confirmed and probable cases of Lyme disease in 2014. “The highest incidence rates were among children aged 5 – 9 year and adults aged 65 – 74 years. The majority of cases had onsets in June, July and August,” according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
The warmer weather creates ample opportunity for ticks to prey on their unsuspecting victims, who are, of course, outside more than usual. Ticks live and thrive in warm temperatures with high humidity levels (think spring and summer), so Jean Sniffin, RN, Community Health Nurse for Century Health Systems, says these simple rules can minimize your risk of getting bitten:
• If you’re hiking, stay on the path. Don’t walk through high grass or brush, where ticks may be waiting to pounce.
• Wear light-colored clothing to make it easier to spot a tick. Tuck pants into socks, and wear long-sleeved shirts.
• Use scant amounts of a tick repellant like DEET and do a full-body tick check after your adventure. That includes hard-to-see spots like under your arms and between your legs. (Ticks thrive in dark, moist environments.)
• Put your clothes in a hot dryer for about an hour after you come inside; the heat will likely kill any ticks that have latched onto your clothes.
• If your pet is with you, check your pet for ticks.
Found a tick? Don’t fret; it takes between 24 and 48 hours for a tick to infect its host. But be vigilant about removing it. First, clean your hands with hand sanitizer and clean the area around the bite. Use fine-tipped tweezers to remove the tick, and pull it out very slowly, very steadily and straight out of the skin. Clean the skin again once the tick is out.
Next: call your doctor to share the news. That way, if you experience delayed presentation of symptoms, the incident will be in your medical file; it will have the information that your doctor may find useful in prescribing treatment later.
Monitor your potential symptoms: the bullseye rash; aches and pains; and flu-like symptoms like fever, headache, stiff neck and fatigue. If it goes untreated, other symptoms of Lyme disease can include arthritis in large joints (knees or elbows) or neurological problems.
“Weeks, months or even years after infection, you might develop inflammation of the membranes surrounding your brain (meningitis), temporary paralysis of one side of your face (Bell’s palsy), numbness or weakness in your limbs, and impaired muscle movement,” according to Mayo Clinic.
A few reminders:
• Tick bites don’t hurt, and a bullseye rash doesn’t always appear.
• Symptoms of Lyme disease come and go; keep a record that you can share with your doctor in case symptoms present themselves more than a few days after you’ve been bitten.
• You can get Lyme disease more than once.
If you’re vigilant about protecting yourself and ensure that you and your family check yourselves regularly, you can lower your risk of contracting a tick-borne illness.
Lauren B. Schiffman is Director of Communications for Century Health Systems, the parent company of the Natick Visiting Nurse Association and Distinguished Care Options.