On a recent walk around the Belle Isle Marsh Reservation in East Boston, my dog went crashing through the tall grass in search of something fun to chew on. I quickly pulled back on her leash, thinking, “She’s going to get ticks!” Fortunately, the veterinarian had given her a vaccine against Lyme disease. We humans are not that lucky.
In 2012, there were 178 cases of Lyme disease reported in Boston. However, the number of cases diagnosed in Boston could be much higher based on a new estimate by the CDC. There are 30,000 cases of Lyme disease reported across the United States each year, but the CDC now estimates that as many as 300,000 cases are actually diagnosed (10 times the number of reported cases).
Ticks are tiny (see scale photo below) bugs that live in shady, damp, grassy, wooded, or brushy areas. This can include a backyard, park, or wooded hiking trail. In Boston, we have deer ticks (AKA blacklegged ticks) and dog ticks; however, only deer ticks spread Lyme disease.
Ticks feed on the blood of mammals (such as mice, deer, and humans), birds, and reptiles. Ticks cannot fly or jump, but instead stretch out their front arms and grab onto an animal that brushes by them. Ticks are most active in the spring, summer, and fall.
What is Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is caused by a germ (bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi) spread to humans from the bite of an infected deer tick. It is most often seen in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions, as well as the Wisconsin/Minnesota area. Lyme disease can (but not always) cause a bulls-eye shaped rash at the site where an infected tick was attached 3 – 30 days after the bite. Flu like symptoms, such as fever, headache, stiff neck, sore and aching muscles and joints, and fatigue may also develop. Early treatment is very important, but symptoms can go away on their own. If untreated, Lyme disease may progress into late stage symptoms months to years after the bite. These symptoms can include arthritis, swelling of the brain and spinal cord, facial weakness, and weakness/pain in the hands, arms, feet and/or legs.
How can I prevent Lyme disease?
When you are in a wooded or tall-grassy area, follow these steps to help prevent Lyme disease:
- Wear long sleeved shirts, long pants, and tuck your pant legs into your socks.
- Wear light colored clothes to make it easier to spot ticks.
- Apply insect repellent containing 20% – 30% DEET to exposed skin and clothing on anyone older than 2 months of age. Permethrin can also be applied to clothing, shoes, etc. but should not be used on the skin. Be sure to always read the product label first.
- Stay in the middle of paths in heavy wooded areas.
- Check yourself for ticks after returning indoors and wash off any insect repellent you may have used.
- Carefully remove the tick with tweezers as soon as possible. Grasp the tick close to the skin and pull straight up (do not squeeze or twist).
- Clean the area around the bite with soap and water.
- Mark the date and location of the bite for future reference.
- Place the tick in a sealed container and store in the freezer in case you need to identify it later.
- If you develop a rash or flu-like symptoms, contact your doctor immediately.
For more information on ticks and Lyme disease, visit www.bphc.org or call the Boston Public Health Commission at (617) 534-5611.
Andrew Solomon is a project manager with the Public Health Commission, supporting the Infectious Disease Bureau in Education & Outreach.