During the summer time and the warm months of early autumn, you spend time outside doing things like hiking and camping. This is great exercise and a great way to spend time with family and friends. But it does increase your exposure to ticks—and tick bites can cause Lyme disease.
Most of my patients are unfamiliar with Lyme disease, but it’s not as uncommon as you might think. More than 20,000 cases are reported nationwide every year. The highest risks are on the west coast, in the southeast, and especially in the northeast.
When an infected tick bites you, you may begin to see symptoms of Lyme disease. Your skin will begin to break out in a bulls-eye rash, you’ll feel achy in your joints, your head will hurt, you’ll run a fever, and you’ll just feel pretty miserable.
If you doctor catches it early enough, Lyme disease can be easily treated with antibiotics. The problem is that Lyme disease is difficult to diagnose in its early stages because it doesn’t always show up on lab tests. In the later stages of the disease, lab tests can be used for diagnosis, but you are at higher risk for damage to your cardiovascular and nervous systems.
Prevention is Key
The best approach to Lyme disease is avoidance. This doesn’t mean that you have to hide indoors during the warm summer and autumn months. But you should have a basic plan to avoid tick bites.
Ticks prefer the woods. They tend to hang in the dense shrubs and small trees that you find in wooded areas. Animals like outdoor pets or mice can also carry ticks.
When you plan to spend time in the woods, make sure you dress properly. Wear light colored clothing so you can easily see any small black ticks that you pick up. Wear long pants that you can tuck into your socks or boots. Stick to the trails—don’t bushwhack through shrubs during tick season (May, June, October, and November.) Finally, use a bug repellant that works for ticks. Commercial bug repellents like permethrin and DEET work. If you prefer something more natural, a bug repellant that contains eucalyptus oil will also be effective.
Finally, make sure you check for ticks at the end of your day. It takes at least 24 hours of feeding before an infected tick can transfer Lyme disease to you—so early removal of all ticks is key. The Center for Disease Control recommends that you use tweezers as the sole method of removing ticks. They state that other methods of removal like smearing oils or petroleum jelly on a tick can actually increase the chances of Lyme disease transmission. Use the tweezers to gently grip the tick by the head and pull the tick out smoothly.
If you do have a tick bite that doesn’t mean you will get Lyme disease, but it does mean you’ll be watchful for any developing symptoms.
What to Do if You Get Lyme Disease
If you do get bitten by a tick and begin to develop symptoms like a rash or achy muscles, schedule a visit with your doctor immediately. Because the first symptom is usually a rash, dermatologists are often the first to see Lyme disease cases, and are skilled at recognizing the symptoms, but your regular family doctor is a good choice, too.
Remember, early recognition and treatment of Lyme disease are key to preventing long-term health problems. Schedule an appointment as soon as you see symptoms and let your doctor know you’ve been exposed to ticks.
Lyme disease is nothing to mess with, so take care to prevent tick bites and remove any ticks that you do find right away.
Jay Brachfeld, M.D.
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