Lyme disease turned 40 in 2015, but no one celebrated. Scientists first detected the tick-borne illness near Lyme, Connecticut, in 1975. About 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported to the CDC annually, though it estimates that about 300,000 people may become infected each year. The illness occurs in at least 43 U.S. states—with 95 percent of cases concentrated in 14 states in the Northeast and Midwest—and in every continent except Antarctica. It is the most common vector-borne disease in the United States.
The good news is that you can do a lot to protect yourself from getting bitten by a tick. And if you develop Lyme disease, it’s treatable with antibiotics.
Lyme disease 101
Certain types of ticks transmit Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. The most prevalent vector is the deer tick. Luckily, the disease is difficult to get because most ticks are not infected, and if they are, they usually have to be embedded in your skin for at least 36 to 48 hours to transmit the infection.
If you do become infected, you may develop symptoms in three to 30 days. About 80 percent of the time, the first sign is an expanding red rash, typically but not always around the bite site (even if the tick is not infected, the bite itself can cause redness around the site, usually less than an inch in diameter). Flu-like symptoms may also occur. If untreated, Lyme usually resolves on its own but may cause a multitude of signs and symptoms. Among the most common are facial paralysis, headaches, and heart rhythm disturbances.
Treatment: how much is too much?
If you have a rash or other symptoms, see your doctor. If it turns out you have Lyme disease, the recommended treatment is oral antibiotics. For later-stage manifestations of Lyme disease, such as neurological, joint, or heart problems, you will need a more prolonged course of antibiotics, often given intravenously. Some people get better without treatment, but antibiotics shorten recovery time and prevent complications.
Many websites talk about “chronic Lyme disease” or “post-Lyme syndrome” and claim this is a common illness, even though the terms really have no accepted definition. You’ll find assertions that antibiotics won’t cure Lyme disease, along with recommendations for alternative treatments. You’ll even find claims that the government is unwilling to admit how many cases of “chronic Lyme disease” there are. None of this is supported by good science.
Of particular concern is long-term use of antibiotics for Lyme disease. Taking them for more than a month has not been shown to have any benefits and, in fact, can be dangerous. The Infectious Diseases Society of America has repeatedly concluded that long-term antibiotic therapy constitutes “considerable risk of harm, including potentially life-threatening adverse events.” If a doctor wants you to take antibiotics for a prolonged period, get a second opinion.
How to protect yourself
Ticks are most active between April and October. If you spend time outdoors in areas where there are ticks, take these steps:
- Wear light-colored, long-sleeved shirts, socks, and pants. Tuck your pants into your socks.
- Apply a repellent containing DEET or picaridin on exposed skin, and spray permethrin on your clothes.
- When you get home, look for ticks all over your body, including your scalp and groin area. Unless they’re engorged with blood, ticks can be very hard to spot. You may need to have someone else examine parts of your body you cannot see. A magnifying glass can help.
- Tick-proof your property by clearing brush and leaves.
- Cats and dogs get Lyme disease, too. Check your pets regularly for ticks.
- One bout of Lyme disease will not make you immune to future infections, so always take precautions when you venture into tick-infested areas.
How to remove a tick
If you find a tick embedded on your body, do not use a hot match, petroleum jelly, or gasoline to remove it. Instead, after cleaning the area, remove the tick with tweezers (preferably fine-tipped), grasping it firmly as close to your skin as possible, and pulling straight back with a steady motion.
Don’t twist the tick, since that may break off the mouth-parts and lead to an infection. Don’t crush, puncture, or squeeze the tick’s body. If the mouthparts break off in the skin, use tweezers, as you would to remove a splinter, then wash the bite site with soap and water.
Also see How to Prevent Mosquito Bites.