With summer in full swing, many people are venturing into the great outdoors, often without giving much thought to the hazards of tick bites and Lyme disease. To help protect against Lyme, the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) advises taking the proper precautions before heading outside, particularly in wooded areas.
“With more than 20,000 new cases reported annually in the last few years, the incidence of Lyme disease is increasing – especially in northeast, mid-Atlantic and north-central states,” said ACEP President Brian Keaton, MD, FACEP. “That is why we advise members of the public to educate themselves about Lyme disease, take measures to protect against tick bites before going out in tick-infested areas and seek prompt medical treatment if symptoms of Lyme disease develop.”
A Disease on the Rise
Most people have heard about Lyme disease, a tick-borne, flu-like illness that is successfully treated about 90 percent of the time through a course or two of antibiotics, if caught early enough. When diagnosis is delayed, however, serious chronic joint, heart and nervous system ailments can result.
Lyme disease is transported by the common deer tick, which feeds on deer, white-footed mice and other mammals. It is caused by the Borrelia burgdorferi, a spiral-shaped bacterium that is most prevalent when deer ticks are at their tiny nymph stage during the spring and early summer months.
The increasing occurrence of the disease is cause for great concern. Approximately 23,300 cases of Lyme disease were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2005, up from about 17,000 in 2001 and roughly 12,000 in 1995. (For links to Lyme disease statistics, including a map revealing the U.S. areas where Lyme disease is most prevalent, see http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvbid/lyme/ld_statistics.htm.) In addition, the CDC indicates that many more cases may go undetected, and therefore unreported, because up to 75 percent of people who get the disease fail to detect the tiny ticks, which often attach themselves to the scalp, groin, armpits and other hidden areas.
Early and Late-Stage Symptoms
The most characteristic symptom of Lyme disease is the classic “bull’s-eye rash,” which is often the first sign of infection. However, the rash does not appear in all cases. Other early-stage symptoms include fever, chills, stiff neck, headache, muscle aches and fatigue. These symptoms usually appear within a few weeks of infection.
Later-stage symptoms of Lyme disease are more serious. Chief among these symptoms is arthritis, particularly in the knees, which can become chronic if the infection goes untreated. Other later-onset symptoms include severe headaches, abnormal heartbeats, Bell’s palsy, numbness and tingling, coordination problems, fatigue, muscle pain, memory loss and cognitive difficulties.
Prevention: the Best Medicine
To avoid potential exposure to Lyme disease, ACEP recommends taking the following preventative measures:
- Cover up when you are outside, especially near wooded areas or grasslands; wear a hat and long-sleeved, light-colored clothing; and tuck pants into socks so that ticks will be easier to spot.
- Avoid wooded areas, piles of leaves and tall grasses, and, if hiking, stay on wide, clear trails.
- Use insect repellents, such as DEET (no more than 10 percent formula for children), on clothing and skin.
- Check yourself regularly for ticks, and shower or bathe after potential exposure.
- Use tick repellents on your pets, and check their fur, ears and paws for ticks, which can drop off and lurk in carpeting and upholstery.
- If bitten, remove the tick by pulling it straight up with a tweezers (or between your fingertips if tweezers are not available). Avoid twisting the tick, which may cause its body parts to remain embedded underneath the skin, often causing infection.
- Get tested for Lyme disease if a tick bite is detected, or if Lyme disease symptoms develop.
“Because Lyme disease is usually easily treated when caught early enough, we recommend that persons who have potentially been exposed to deer ticks and who experience Lyme disease symptoms – including a flulike illness and a bull’s eye rash – seek prompt attention from a physician for proper evaluation and treatment,” said Dr. Keaton.