Ahhh summer! It’s time to slip on a T-shirt, shorts and sandals and head out into nature. At this time of year, millions of people spend time outdoors to take in some fresh air, get some exercise, maybe do a little photography, run through a field or two, pick up a tick and get Lyme disease. What a season! Let the festivities begin!
Now, obviously I am being a bit waggish – nobody looks forward to a tick bite or a serious disease. But we do worry about it. Warnings about ticks seemingly come from everywhere and we’ve been given a heavy dose of fear about the insect since we were kids. What, however, is Lyme disease? How do we prevent it? Is it as dangerous and prevalent as we were told? Let’s take a closer look at the whole thing, shall we?
What is Lyme Disease?
Lyme disease occurs as the result of being bitten by an infected black-legged (deer) tick. It is caused when the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi migrates from the tick to a human. It is important to note that not all ticks carry the bacterium. Ticks acquire the bacterium through feeding off an infected animal and in order to pass the bacterium to a human, the tick must be attached for more than 36 hours. Immediate removal of the tick is usually enough to avoid the disease. Symptoms of Lyme disease include fever, fatigue, headache and a very unique skin rash called erythema migrans. (The rash looks like a bullseye, radiating in concentric circles that alternate in color from red to white.) Initial symptoms appear within three days after a bite. If left untreated, Lyme disease can lead to arthritis or severe joint swelling and pain, facial palsy, heart palpitations, extremity numbness, and inflammation of the brain and spinal cord.
Lyme disease cannot be transmitted from human to human. Although pets (dogs and cats) can also get the disease, there is no evidence or case of Lyme disease being transmitted from pet to human. There is also no evidence that Lyme disease can be transmitted through our food, air, water or through the bite of flies, lice or mosquitoes. Currently, the disease is known to be transmitted to humans in one way – the tick.
The black-legged tick is native to the northeastern, north-central and mid-Atlantic United States, but can appear almost anywhere. It prefers humid and shady woodlands and will avoid sunlight and streams. Ticks cannot fly or jump. They attach to a host through a method called “questing.” While “questing,” a tick holds to the end of a plant, fern or blade of grass with their hind legs. It then reaches up its front legs and waits for a host to brush by, and it climbs aboard. Once it has found a host, it seeks out the warmest and most moist body part, such as the groin, armpit, back of the knee, scalp and belly button. When it has found a suitable area on the host, it cuts into the skin with its mouth and inserts a (usually barbed) feeding tube, which also serves as an anchor. A tick can feed slowly on the blood of a host for several days.
Ticks can be nearly anywhere. It need not be in the woodlands – there are even certain plants they prefer to “quest” from. These plants include Japanese Barberry, Amur Honeysuckle and multiflora rose bushes. The majority of tick bites happen in home backyards, but usually, a barrier of woodchips between the yard and the woodlands will be enough to deter ticks. They will not traverse the wood chips for fear of drying out. Ticks are most active in the months of June and July.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that there are 300,000 cases of Lyme disease each year. Michigan (believe it or not) is a low-incidence state. In 2017, there were 196 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in Michigan. Contrast that with Pennsylvania, a high-incidence state that saw 9,250 cases the same year, and the threat of Lyme disease in Michigan feels less worrisome. The incidence overall, however, has been slowly climbing throughout the nation and has more than doubled since 2004. Some reasons for the increase in incidence over the years are a decrease in deer hunting, globalization and climate change.
In its early stages, Lyme disease can be treated with standard antibiotics and most people recover quickly and completely. In rare cases, people may develop Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome (PTLDS). This condition causes lingering pain, joint and muscle aches, and those affected will recover over a longer period of time than standard. “Chronic Lyme Disease” is a misleading term that people use to describe different illnesses. There is no such thing as “Chronic Lyme Disease.”
Help! I have the fear! How do I prevent Lyme disease?
Relax, my worried friend. Lyme disease is quite preventable. Just follow these (or some of these) suggestions:
- Apply a chemical insect repellent containing Permethrin or Picaridin. (DEET is not toxic to ticks.)
- Wear light-colored clothing to make ticks more visible.
- Tuck pant legs into socks (your grandfather would be so proud.)
- Avoid deeply-wooded areas; stick to the middle of the trail.
- Clear areas that harbor deer, rodents or other vermin.
- Check yourself and your pets daily for ticks.
- If you find one, remove it immediately. Don’t wait!
Don’t worry too much. Just take precautions and enjoy yourself this summer! Ticks are found everywhere but with great vigilance, you, your family and your pets will be fine. Remember: ticks can’t jump or fly and if you find one attached, remove it immediately (see below). Again, it takes 36 hours for the disease-causing bacteria to transmit from the tick to a human. Also, Michigan is a low-incidence state, so the odds are on your side. The folks in Pennsylvania though … sheesh.
In its early stages, Lyme disease can be treated with standard antibiotics and most people recover quickly and completely.
How to Remove a Tick
- Grasp the tick’s body as close to the skin as possible with a fine-tipped tweezer.
- Pull upward with even pressure. Twisting or jerking the tick will cause its mouth parts to break off. (If this happens, remove the mouth parts with tweezers. If not possible, leave it alone and allow the skin to heal.)
- After removal, clean the bitten area (and your hands) with alcohol or soap and water.
- Never crush a tick with your fingers. Dispose of it by putting it in alcohol, binding it with tape or flushing it down a toilet.
- Avoid folklore remedies such as using a flame, nail polish or petroleum jelly to coax it out.