It has been a few years since Lyme disease commanded serious media attention, but don’t jump to the wrong conclusion. The truth is that this illness, caused by bacteria carried by ticks, has continued to be widespread. Since it was first identified near the town of Old Lyme, Conn., in 1975, the disease has become common across the Northeast, in the North Central states and on the West Coast, and a form of it is also known in Europe.
Yet Lyme disease is still poorly understood. “Many people are confused about it—even physicians,” says Robert W. Tolan Jr., M.D., chief of the division of allergy, immunology and infectious disease at The Children’s Hospital at Saint Peter’s University Hospital.
One misconception is that the ticks that carry the microbe are found just on deer. Not so; other mammals, particularly mice, also harbor the insect. Also, “headaches and fatigue are rarely the main symptoms, despite what most people believe,” says Dr. Tolan. The most common symptom is the characteristic bull’s-eye rash around the tick bite. “People with headaches and fatigue often believe they have Lyme, but it’s usually something else.”
Though most people have no symptoms other than the rash, other rare but possible symptoms include partial facial paralysis, meningitis (when the infection spreads to the brain covering and spinal cord) and heart arrhythmia in older adults. Kids may experience swelling in one knee joint.
Another false belief is that Lyme can’t be treated well. “It is hard to diagnose, but there are effective treatments,” Dr. Tolan says. Laboratory tests that confirm the presence of Lyme can be unreliable, he admits, but antibiotics—administered in case the disease is present—successfully eradicate the bacteria “almost 100 percent of the time.”
Lyme disease is almost never fatal. But the ticks that carry Lyme also carry other, potentially more serious diseases. “There are plenty of reasons beside Lyme disease to avoid ticks,” Dr. Tolan says.
The good news is most people who are bitten by a tick do not develop Lyme disease, and that a tick usually must be attached to the body for at least 24 hours to transmit the illness. (To remove a tick, pull it gently with fine-tipped tweezers, then wash the area with soap and water or waterless hand sanitizer and place the tick in a tightly closed container for examination by your healthcare provider or health department.)
But your safest course is to steer clear of ticks entirely by heeding these tips:
• Wear long pants, long sleeves and long socks to keep ticks off the skin. Tuck shirts into pants and pant legs into socks or shoes to keep ticks on the surface of your clothing.
• Wear light-colored clothing to make it easier to spot ticks.
• Spray clothing with the repellent permethrin, found in lawn and garden stores. (Do not apply permethrin directly to the skin.)
• Spray exposed clothing and skin with repellent containing 20 percent to 30 percent DEET to prevent tick bites. Carefully read and understand manufacturer instructions when using repellent, especially when using the products on infants and children.
• Avoid wooded areas and nearby shady grasslands.
• Maintain a clear backyard by removing yard litter and excess brush that could attract deer and rodents.
• After being outside, check for ticks, especially in the hairy areas of the body, and wash all clothing.
• Before letting pets indoors, check them for ticks. Ticks may fall off and then attach to humans. Pets can also develop Lyme disease.
• Take special care to avoid ticks in Lyme-disease areas if you’re pregnant, as infection may be transmitted to the fetus.
Source: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases