Fight the bite: Lyme disease and other tickborne diseases

Lyme disease tick

By Edward Butler, M.D., Traveler’s Health and Infectious Disease Services at Lawrence Memorial Hospital of Medford and Melrose Wakefield Hospital

Lyme disease tick

Deer ticks carry Lyme disease and other diseases.

You may not see them. But they’re out there. Ixodes scapularis, more commonly known as the deer tick, is a parasite that lives on many animals in Massachusetts and throughout New England. Ticks carry a host of dangerous and potentially deadly diseases, including Lyme disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in 2014, Massachusetts had more than 3,600 confirmed cases of Lyme diseasemore than 14 percent of the approximately 30,000 cases in America reported to the CDC that year.

But those are only the cases that are reported to the CDC, which estimates there are actually about 300,000 cases of Lyme disease nationwide each year. The Northeast and upper Midwest account for some 96 percent of those cases.

And we know that New Englanders are concerned about tickborne illness. According to the online search tracking site Google Trends, the six New England states are in the top 10 states in which people searched for the word “ticks” online in 2015, with Massachusetts coming in at number 8. Massachusetts was number 6 in searches for “Lyme disease” in 2015.

Tickborne illnesses are clearly something we have to watch out for. But if you understand how ticks can make you sick, how to avoid tick bites, and know what symptoms to look for, you can minimize your risks for Lyme disease and other illnesses these pestilent parasites carry.

How do ticks make us sick?

Ticks have carried diseases to humans throughout recorded history, and even before that. A 2010 autopsy of the Iceman, a frozen mummy preserved for more than 5,300 years, found traces of a bacterium that causes Lyme disease.

Ticks carry a wide variety of bacteria and viruses. Many are from the same type of bacteria: Borrelia. There are 36 known species of Borrelia, 12 of which we know are carried by ticks and cause Lyme disease.

Ticks carry many other disease-causing bacteria, such as Borrelia miyamotoi — a cousin of the bacteria that cause Lyme disease. The first identified case of infection with Borrelia miyamotoi in our region happened in 2014, and there have been about 100 cases since then. And these are just a few that we know about — scientists have identified viruses and bacteria in ticks that we haven’t yet named or studied.

Probably the scariest tick disease for Massachusetts residents is Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Don’t let the name fool you — this disease isn’t limited to the West. It’s found all over the East Coast, and it’s spread by the North American dog tick. If a person with Rocky Mountain spotted fever doesn’t get treatment, it could be fatal.

Tips and tricks to avoid ticks

All diseases need the right environment to spread, and the diseases ticks carry are no exception. Some people think they can avoid ticks by not going outside at all, but that’s not the case. Ticks can come in on visitors and their clothes, on packages that are delivered, and potentially through doors and windows.

One of the simplest ways to reduce your risk is to wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants when you’re outside from mid-March through October. Reducing the amount of skin available makes it less likely that you’ll be bitten. Of course, that’s easier said than done. When we’re outside in those warmer months doing the things we love — like gardening, hiking, or golfing — it gets hot! Wearing long sleeves and pants when you’re working up a sweat can be hard, which is why so many people don’t do it.

It’s wise to get in the habit of doing a thorough inspection for ticks after you come back inside. Ideally, you should have someone else check your hair, the back of your neck, and the area right behind your knee where it may be hard to see. If you have children, make sure to check them frequently for ticks. Ticks are very small — some about the size of a poppy seed — so check carefully.

If you see a tick, remove it with tweezers. Try to remove the head and all of its body parts as best you can. Some hardware stores sell tick-removal kits that include fine tweezers to help you get every little part of the tick.

You can reduce your risk for tick bites by limiting your exposure to the white-footed mouse, also known as the woodmouse, which is common in our area. It’s a major host of tick larvae. Researchers have found bacteria that cause Lyme disease in more than 88 percent of the white-footed mice they examined.

Your backyard is a natural habitat for these mice. While you probably can’t eliminate all the mice, you can make the mice less appealing to ticks. Many hardware and home-improvement stores carry special tubes that contain cotton soaked in chemicals called acaricides — pesticides that specifically target ticks. When you spread the tubes in your backyard, the mice grab the cotton out of them to use in their nests. This means the mice’s nests will kill the ticks on their bodies, making them less likely to spread the ticks’ dangerous diseases.

What to do if you get a tick bite

Even if you’re careful, it’s still possible to get bitten by a tick. Watch for these common signs of tickborne disease:

  • Aches and pains in joints and muscles
  • Fever
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Rash

If you think you may have a tickborne disease, you need to see a doctor quickly. Doctors who have experience with these diseases can pinpoint the cause and get you started on treatment right away. Fortunately, treatment for tickborne diseases is safe and relatively inexpensive. Most respond well to an antibiotic once a day for two to three weeks, and that cures the disease for 99 percent of people.

Tickborne diseases are particularly dangerous for us here in eastern Massachusetts. But with careful planning, precautions, and a little vigilance during the warmer months, we all can enjoy the warmer temperatures and our favorite outdoor activities without constantly looking over our shoulders for ticks.

Tags: children's health, family health, family medicine, Infectious Disease, men's health, women's health

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