Ticks and Lyme Disease
Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne disease in the United States. A comprehensive list of tick-borne diseases is maintained by the Centers for Disease Control.
The CDC estimates that around 300,000 people are infected each year with Lyme disease. The majority of confirmed Lyme disease cases are reported from states in the Northeast, including New York. There have been 95,000 cases of Lyme disease reported to the New York State Department of Health since it became reportable in 1986.
In Schenectady County, the tick responsible for spreading Lyme disease is Ixodes scapularis, or the blacklegged or deer tick.
The only way Lyme can be transmitted to humans is through the bite of a tick infected with the bacterium B. burgdorferi. It cannot be spread from person to person.
Ticks go through multiple life stages during their life cycle. The tick life stage most commonly involved in Lyme disease transmission to humans is the nymph. Nymphs are most often alive from late March through June, making this the most common time period for Lyme disease transmission to humans.
During late spring and early summer, ticks in the larva stage will attach to a host, typically mice or deer, and feed, eventually growing and molting into a nymph. It is during this initial feeding stage that ticks most commonly obtain the bacterium responsible for causing Lyme disease.
The nymph then finds another host to feed on, typically mice or deer, but potentially humans. The tick can pass the bacterium to the host at this stage. The tick can then detach and molt into an adult.
Adults will then seek out another host to feed off of in order to produce eggs for reproduction. While it is possible for adult ticks to spread Lyme disease, they are much bigger than nymphs and larva so are more easily spotted before they are able to transmit Lyme.
Signs and Symptoms
Early signs of Lyme disease mimic a flu-like illness. Fever, fatigue, headache, chills, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes are all possible symptoms. In addition, the development of Erythema migrans rash, also called the “bull’s eye rash,” occurs in approximately 70 to 80% of persons infected with Lyme. The rash begins at the site of the tick bite anywhere from 3 to 30 days following the bite, but typically occurs within 1 week. The rash begins small but expands gradually over time.
Left untreated, Lyme disease progresses and can cause more serious symptoms. Severe muscle and joint pain and swelling can occur. Nerve pain, facial palsy, and shooting pains or tingling are all neurologic symptoms of progressing Lyme disease. Cardiac symptoms can also occur, ranging from heart palpitations to an irregular heartbeat. The CDC has a more thorough list of signs and symptoms.
The best way to prevent Lyme disease is to prevent tick exposure.
- Avoid direct contact with ticks. Avoid wooded areas with high grass cover, leaf litter and walk in the center of outdoor trails.
- Wear light colored clothing and tuck pants into socks and shirt into pants.
- Use EPA registered repellents that contain 20% or more DEET, picaridin, or IR3535 on exposed skin and clothing. Read all labels and follow application directions.
- Treat household animals for ticks to minimize them bringing stowaway ticks home.
- Bathe or shower as soon as possible after coming indoors.
- Conduct full body tick checks on everyone and anything that was outside, including pets and gear.
- Tumble dry clothes in the dryer on high heat for 10 minutes to kill ticks on dry clothing. Damp clothes will require additional time.
- Discourage unwelcome animals from entering your yard by fencing it in. This will decrease the number of ticks “hitching” a ride into your yard.
- Mow lawns frequently. If possible, have a non-grass barrier around yards and recreation areas to restrict tick migration.
- Keep long hair tied back, especially when in wooded areas.
Removing a tick
Ticks will attach anywhere on the human body, but they tend to harbor in hard to see areas such as the scalp, groin, and armpits. Ticks are small, especially when in an early life stage.
If you do find a tick attached to you, it is important to remove the tick as soon as possible. While Lyme disease transmission requires ticks to be attached for 24 to 48 hours, the emerging tick-borne Powassan virus can be transmitted in less than 30 minutes.
It is important to remove a tick carefully and completely. NYSDOH recommends the following steps to remove ticks:
- Use a pair of pointed tweezers.
- Grasp the tick by the head or mouth right where it enters the skin.
- Pull firmly and steadily upward. If pieces of the tick remain in the skin, use tweezers to remove the remaining portion.
- Place the tick in a small container of rubbing alcohol to kill it.
- Clean the bite wound with rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide.
- Monitor the site of the bite for the next 30 days for the appearance of a rash.
- If you develop a rash or any flu-like symptoms, contact your health care provider immediately.
- Do not use nail polish or petroleum jelly to cover ticks in hopes of killing them. Doing so will allow ticks to remain attached to skin until removed, ultimately allowing them to potentially transmit Lyme disease.
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