Best Ways to Protect Yourself Against Lyme Disease
How to prevent bites and recognize symptoms during tick season
The recent 100 anniversary of the National Parks serves as a reminder that they offer great opportunities to get outside and explore. As with any outdoor adventure, visitors need to be cautious about encounters with wildlife, including big, threatening animals like bears and alligators. But don't forget about the dangerous “little guys” — ticks. They carry diverse and dangerous bacteria, including those that cause Lyme disease.
Basics on Lyme Disease
Lyme disease is one of the fastest growing infectious diseases in the United States. During the past several years, experts have observed the spread of ticks carrying Lyme disease to areas where it has not previously been seen. And estimates of the number of people diagnosed with Lyme disease have grown to approximately 329,000 new cases of each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Because some ticks carry bacteria that can cause Lyme and other diseases, it is important to understand the risks and symptoms of Lyme disease, as well as ways to prevent ticks from biting. Lyme disease can easily be misdiagnosed. As Next Avenue has reported, singer/songwriter and actor Kris Kristofferson for years was told he was suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's disease, only to recently discover it had been lyme disease all along.
The good news is that there are effective ways to help prevent tick bites.
It’s smart to wear light-colored clothing, which makes ticks easier to spot. Even better: wear clothes treated with insect repellents like permethrin. You can purchase permethrin from hardware stores and treat your own clothes, or buy pre-treated clothing from retailers like LL Bean or REI.
Bug spray containing DEET can also help ward off ticks, mosquitos and other pests.
But frequent tick checks are the most effective method of guarding against tick-borne infections. So you should be checking daily, especially when you’ve been outdoors around grasses, shrubs and on overgrown trails.
Remember that ticks can vary in size — some are as small as a poppy seed — so using your fingertips to check for unusual bumps or tags is best. It’s often easiest to do this at the end of the day while you’re taking a shower. Ticks love hair, necks, armpits, waistbands, the groin area and the backs of knees; pay close attention to these areas.
If you find that a tick has bitten you or someone you are traveling with, here's how to remove it: Position tweezers between the skin and the tick’s mouth and tug firmly but gently straight up away from the skin. If you yank or try to twist it out, the tick’s mouthparts could remain embedded in the skin and cause irritation — possibly even transferring some bacteria into the bloodstream.
Then, it’s a good idea to circle the bite area with a sharpie. This way, if you develop a rash, you can see if it is spreading and growing beyond the bite site. That's a key symptom of Lyme. If possible, save the tick in a small plastic bag; if you begin to feel ill, it is helpful to have the tick available for future testing.
Lyme disease is often associated with a classic “bull’s-eye” rash, but the truth is that many people never develop any form of skin rash. And those that do may not get a typical bull’s-eye rash.
The CDC estimates that only 70 percent of people with Lyme disease develop a skin rash (erythema migrans), but this is further complicated by regional variations. (The variations may be as a result of different strains of the Borrelia bacteria that causes Lyme.) For example, a 2010 study showed that in Maine, only 43 percent of Lyme patients exhibited this particular type of “bull’s-eye” rash. Click here to see examples of what the rash might look like.
Other Common Symptoms
In the early stages of Lyme disease, symptoms often include the following, according to the Bay Area Lyme Foundation:
- Fever and chills
- Headache or stiff neck
- Muscle and joint pain
- Severe fatigue or lack of energy
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Redness or a bump at the bite area.
After several weeks or months of untreated Lyme disease, symptoms may also include a rash on other parts of the body, numbness or pain in the arms or legs, fainting, facial paralysis, memory or concentration problems, extreme joint pain and heart palpitations.
Late-stage Lyme may result in arthritis, numbness or tingling in the extremities and back, problems with mood or sleep, hearing and vision problems and inflammation of the brain or heart.
If you do begin to feel ill and then see a doctor, pay close attention to the tests you're given.
The current recommended diagnostic for Lyme disease is a two-tiered blood test requiring a positive enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) result. The ELISA measures infection-fighting or memory antibodies against Borrelia burgdorferi, and a positive result prompts the second test, often referred to as the Western blot.
But the first test misses up to 60 percent of acute cases of early-stage Lyme when antibodies are not high enough to detect. This means that it is currently very easy to get a false negative test for Lyme. The current diagnostics are not foolproof. That’s why tick-bite education and prevention and Lyme disease awareness, is essential.
As with any outdoor experience, plan carefully, prepare for potential hazards, and enjoy the beauty of our nation’s treasures.