NEW YORK, NY --Many people mistakenly believe that tick season ends at Labor Day, but in fact the danger of tick bites extends well into the fall and even the winter if the weather stays warm. Last winter, for the first time since I began treating Lyme disease in the 1980s, I saw new cases of Lyme all winter, even in January and February. We won’t get the final numbers until later in the fall, but this year is shaping up to be one of the worst in recent memory for Lyme disease and other tick-borne infectious illnesses.
The combination of a mild winter with an unusually large population of mice led to an increased number of ticks this spring and summer, and it will likely continue into the fall. Along with an uptick in the number of acute Lyme cases this year, I am also seeing a spike in other tick-borne illnesses such as anaplasmosis, babesiosis, ehrlichiosis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
It’s not just gardeners and hikers who are coming down with these infections. Simply walking through grass to the mailbox can put you at risk. The agricultural stations in both Connecticut and Westchester warned us in early spring that they were seeing unusually large numbers of ticks that were infected with Lyme disease.
Mice and deer are the primary carriers of the very small blacklegged tick, which carries Lyme and these other diseases. They are also known as deer ticks. A single mouse can carry up to 100 infected ticks just on its face, ears and head.
Symptoms of Lyme disease include a rash, headache, flu-like illness, fatigue, neck stiffness, numbness and tingling in the face or hands and feet, a drooping facial palsy or Bell’s palsy, dizziness, and heart palpitations. Joint pain, especially in the knees, is a common Lyme symptom. Knees may be swollen as well.
The best way to prevent Lyme disease is to avoid being bitten by a tick. Here are some prevention strategies:
· Avoid wooded areas and be vigilant about ticks even if you’re not the outdoorsy type. If you are in grassy or wooded areas with ticks, wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts. Tuck long pants into socks. Wear shoes, not flip-flops.
· When you come indoors after being in areas where ticks may be living, do full-body tick checks on yourself and your children. Ticks like warm, moist areas of your body, including the groin, behind the knee, armpits and around hairlines.
· Shower within a couple of hours of coming indoors to wash off any ticks. Put your clothing and outerwear in the dryer for 10 minutes. Super-heating will kill ticks.
· The Centers for Disease Control recommends mowing your grass regularly. Consider putting wood chips or gravel around the perimeter of your property, about two to three feet deep. When mice run across the uneven, bumpy terrain, about 50 percent of the ticks they are carrying will fall off.
· Do tick checks on your pets, too. Try to keep them off areas where you sleep. When removing a tick from a dog, wear gloves or use a paper towel to avoid coming in contact with any blood, and wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water. Tick vaccines for pets are now available.
· Consider having your yard sprayed with chemicals that contain pyrethrins and other compounds that help kill ticks. There are also organic, less toxic sprays made of peppermint, lemon and citrus oils.
· Birds can carry ticks, too, so you may want to move bird feeders away from the house and outdoor decks.
HOW TO HANDLE TICK BITES
If you are bitten by a tick, remove it promptly.
· Use a clean pair of tweezers to grasp the mouth parts of the tick as close to the skin as possible and pull it off in a steady upward motion. Avoid breaking the tick and releasing its blood.
· Clean the bite area thoroughly with soap and water, rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide. For some people, the bite area will become an itchy red welt right away or within a day or two – this does not mean you have Lyme disease.
· Write down the date and location of the bite in case you develop Lyme disease symptoms later. Your medical provider will want to know when you were bitten.
· Watch for signs of the classic bull’s-eye rash that may develop around the bite, but note that not everyone with Lyme develops this rash. The rash doesn’t hurt and there is no itching or burning sensation with it. If you have the bull’s-eye rash, you have Lyme and should seek treatment right away.
· Don’t panic. It usually takes at least 24 hours for a tick to transmit Lyme and other diseases to humans. So if you removed the tick quickly, you are not likely to develop Lyme. If you have Lyme, it is generally treatable.
· Depending on your symptoms, your medical provider may want to do a blood test to look for Lyme disease or other tick-borne infections. Three antibiotics are used to treat Lyme disease: doxycycline, amoxicillin and cefuroxime axetil. Doxycycline has the added benefit of also treating ehrlichiosis and anaplasmosis.