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Why It's Called Lyme Disease & How to Avoid It

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Lyme disease is a bacterial disease spread by deer ticks, which are most common in the Northeastern, Mid-Atlantic, North-central, and Pacific Northwest sections of the United States. The disease is named after the town of Lyme, Conn., where cases were first diagnosed in 1975.

lyme disease ticks

The blacklegged tick (or deer tick, Ixodes scapularis) spreads the disease in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and North-central United States. The western blacklegged tick (Ixodes pacificus) spreads the disease on the Pacific Coast. The adult ticks are about the size of a sesame seed and nymphal ticks are about the size of a poppy seed. Image courtesy of the CDC.

Ticks most commonly inhabit low bushes and tall grasses, particularly in wooded areas or woodland edges. They sit and wait for warm-blooded animals they can attack, such as deer, mice, dogs, cats and people.

Only a minority of tick bites lead to Lyme disease, but the risk must be taken seriously. Vigilance is key. The longer the tick stays attached to your skin, the greater the risk of infection. A tick has to take a full meal of blood before the disease-causing bacteria can be transmitted. It can take 48 hours for a tick to feed enough so that the bacteria can pass into your bloodstream, so looking for and removing ticks promptly is an excellent way to prevent infection.

How to Avoid Tick Bites

To ward off ticks, wear long pants, long sleeves, shoes and socks, a hat and gloves when working or walking in wooded or grassy areas. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend a DEET-based insect repellent. Oil of lemon eucalyptus, a natural alternative, is said to offer the same protection as DEET when used in similar concentrations. Read all labels and consult with your doctor or pharmacist. Both DEET and lemon eucalyptus have restrictions for use on young children, so be sure to talk with your pediatrician.

Check yourself, children and pets for ticks after you’ve been gardening or playing outdoors. Look carefully; ticks are tiny. They often don’t attach for several hours but instead just crawl around on the skin. Taking a shower when you come inside may wash away any unattached ticks.

What to Do If You Find a Tick

If you find a tick, remove it with a pair of tweezers, grasping it near its head and pulling steadily to remove the entire tick—body, head and mouthparts. Dispose of the tick, such as by flushing it down the toilet, and swab the skin with an antiseptic.

In general, Lyme disease presents as a small red bump that appears within days to a month of being bitten, surrounded by a bull’s-eye rash from a fraction of an inch to 12 inches across. It is often accompanied by flu-like symptoms. Up to 30 percent of infected people never develop the rash.

Less common symptoms include severe knee and other joint pain and swelling, temporary paralysis of one side of the face, numb or weak limbs and impaired muscle movements. These neurological problems may begin weeks, months or years after an untreated infection. Heart palpitations, eye inflammation, hepatitis and severe fatigue can also present themselves, though these are least common.

If you have symptoms and suspect Lyme disease, contact your doctor. The disease can be healed with antibiotics.

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