Spring is the prime season for gardening, hiking and simply sitting on the lawn and enjoying the weather. The warm and inviting temperature attracts not just us, but many other creatures as well. Unfortunately, not all of them are harmless. Climate change has increased the number and range of ticks, causing an increase in tick-borne diseases across the country. New Jersey has been hit particularly hard this year by the most notable of these: Lyme disease.
May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month, so Best of NJ is putting together a two-part series on what Lyme disease is, how to prevent it and how to spot and treat symptoms.
Lyme disease (or Lyme borreliosis) is an infection caused by a type of bacteria called a spirochete. Spirochetes are shaped like corkscrews, and can “drill” into many parts of the body, including the brain. Once the disease enters the body, it’s not easy to cure, and can result in years of illness and health complications.
I have had Lyme disease for 20 years. I contracted it in high school, and because of misinformation, I didn’t receive a proper diagnosis for 15 years. I’ve suffered from many complications because of Lyme, including arthritis, nerve and brain damage, cardiac issues and skin disorders. I spent a year in a wheelchair, and used a cane for three years. But this could have been avoided with better prevention guidelines. Specifically, information about the proper application of bug spray, tips about appropriate clothing and thorough inspection techniques.
Mentioning DEET makes people nervous, but the CDC recommends using products with ≥20% DEET to help prevent ticks. DEET is safe for children and adults unless they have an allergy, and it’s the most effective insect repellent available. As long as it doesn’t get into the eyes or mouth, no other irritation should occur. One brand, Repel, carries a spray geared specifically towards ticks.
Follow the directions on the product packaging to apply the spray, concentrating on exposed skin. Spray shoes and socks, and sacrifice fashion for the greater good by tucking long pants into socks when walking in the woods or in tall grass. Adults should spray their hands and gently rub the repellent on a child’s exposed skin, avoiding their hands and face. Wash hands after applying repellent.
When finished with outdoor activities, take the time to inspect your body for ticks (and wash off the bug spray) by taking a hot shower. This makes examination easier, and washes away ticks that have not latched. Bathe and examine children, as well. As soon as clothing is removed, toss it in the washing machine or a sealed plastic bag, and wash with the appropriate bleach as soon as possible.
The ticks most likely to cause Lyme disease are black-legged (i.e. deer) ticks, in the nymph stage. They’re very tiny, which is why prevention and inspection are so important. This chart can help with identification.
If you find a tick that has already latched, don’t panic! As long as it’s removed within 24 hours, infection is much less likely. Take a pair of tweezers and grasp the tick as close to your skin as possible. Pull the tick straight out in the same direction that it entered, then clean the wound with rubbing alcohol. Do not use Vaseline, turpentine, heat, fingers or any method other than tweezers for removal. Using an improper method can cause ticks to panic and expel the contents of their gut, making infection all but guaranteed. Keep an eye on the bite to make sure it’s healing well, keeping the area clean and dry.
Pets can become infected, too – using a product such as a Seresto collar can help prevent flea and tick bites.
Over 320,000 people are diagnosed with Lyme disease each year. That’s more than breast cancer and HIV combined. In Part Two of this series, we’ll get into ways to identify infection, how to seek treatment and what to expect.