Lyme disease is a bacterial infectious disease, transmitted to humans by the bite of a blacklegged tick, which must remain on the skin feeding for at least a full day, and usually multiple days, in order to transmit the bacteria.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), tens of thousands of Americans suffer from confirmed cases of Lyme disease per year, with the condition being most prevalent in the Northeast, the Mid-Atlantic, and Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Lyme disease is treatable, but if left untreated can become very serious. Early symptoms include headache, fever, fatigue, and a skin rash, but the infection can get much worse if allowed to spread to the joints, heart, and nervous system.
There are a number of steps that can be taken to reduce the likelihood of acquiring Lyme disease:
* Avoid areas where ticks are most common.
Ticks are most often found in woods, bushes, tall grass, and leaf litter, and are most active in May, June, and July. In wooded areas, you are less likely to encounter ticks if you remain on a trail rather than venturing off into the grass and trees.
* Landscape away tick-friendly areas.
Don’t let leaf litter accumulate, or grass become overgrown. Place wood chips or gravel between your lawn and any neighboring wooded area. Keep the area around bird feeders clean. Don’t place playground equipment, lawn furniture, etc. around trees or the edge of your yard that borders a wooded area.
* Manage deer populations.
Areas with a lot of deer can sometimes have large tick populations. The ticks feed on the blood of the deer, and the ready food source means more of them can survive and reproduce, resulting in more ticks that can attack humans. Studies have been mixed, but provide some evidence that lowering the deer population lowers the tick population. Even if the overall deer population is not reduced, you can still take measures to keep deer off your property by erecting fences, planting deer-resistant plants, and not feeding deer that do come on your property.
* Apply pesticides to tick-infested areas.
Pesticides designed to work against ticks are called “acaricides.” Applied properly, acaricides can reduce local tick populations by 68%-100%.
* Use insect repellent.
If you are going to be in areas with ticks, use insect repellent with DEET on exposed skin, and insect repellent with Permethrin on clothes and sleeping bags and other gear.
* Cover as much as possible of your skin.
In summer it’s not realistic to be fully bundled up with no exposed skin, but as much as possible wear long pants, wear long sleeves, tuck pant legs inside of socks or boots, or even wrap tape around where your pants and socks meet. Some studies indicate ticks are marginally less likely to crawl onto dark clothes, however they are also much harder to see on dark clothes, so you are probably better off wearing light clothes.
* Check yourself for ticks.
Any time you have been in an area where ticks are a concern, when you get home check your body and your clothes carefully for ticks. Wash clothes in hot water and dry using high heat. If you do find a tick on your skin, carefully remove it with fine-tipped tweezers.
If you do contract Lyme disease, the treatment is antibiotics. If the infection is caught early, most patients recover rapidly and completely. Studies show that the few patients who do not respond to the initial treatment may benefit from a four week extension of the antibiotics, but that beyond that, antibiotics are counterproductive and more likely to lead to serious complications than cure.
The patients who don’t respond to antibiotics can suffer from symptoms for months or even years. Why they do not respond is not known, though there is speculation that there is a problem with their autoimmune system, where their body continues to respond to the infection after the bacteria is gone.