by Steven D. Blatt, MD
I took my dog to the veterinarian last week for an annual check up. As she does every year, Dr. Harris checked him for Lyme disease. When he was a puppy we had found a few ticks on him and his blood test showed he did have Lyme disease. He was treated with antibiotics and has been fine ever since. Every month, even during the winter, we use anti-tick medicine on him and he’s been tick free.
Not so with my daughter. She is 15 and one evening at the end of April she told me she had a bug on her thigh. I looked at her and the bug was a tick. I removed it without incident. About a month ago when I was working at Upstate Golisano After Hours Care at Community General Hospital I removed a tick from a young girl. There’s an increasing chance that this summer, one of your children will have a tick on them. What exactly does that mean and how worried should you be? What is Lyme disease? How can I prevent Lyme disease?
Lyme disease was first identified from patients in Lyme, Connecticut in the mid 1970’s. The spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi is the bacterium that causes the disease. B. burgdorferi is found in mice, squirrels and other rodents. When a blacklegged or deer tick feeds from those small animals, the tick becomes infected and will pass the infection on to other animals such as deer, dogs, and people. A 2008 study of ticks collected at Green Lakes State Park in Fayetteville, NY found that more than 60% were positive for B. burgdorferi.
Deer ticks live in shady, bushy areas within 24 inches of the ground. Ticks don’t jump, but once on a person or animal, they will climb to an area they prefer. Avoiding tick areas is now hard to do in Central New York. Ticks are everywhere, including your back yard. Detailed tips for avoiding ticks can be found at the CDC and NYS Department of Health websites. In general, three things one can do are:
• Avoid direct contact with ticks by avoiding the places they live. If you like the outdoors, this is really hard to do.
• Use tick repellents that contain at least 20% DEET and treat clothing with permethrin.
• Conduct a full body tick check on your child at the end of every day. If doing this to yourself, you will need a mirror. Be sure to check under arms, between legs, around the ears, in the hair, around the waist, and in the belly button. Remember, ticks will move on a person to find the spot they want.
What should you do if you find a tick? First, breathe. Don’t panic. It is better that you found the tick than to have missed it. Use good quality, fine-tipped tweezers to pull the tick out. Both CDC and NYS DOH websites have good instructions for tick removal. If the tick has been on the person for less than 36 hours, then treatment with antibiotics usually isn’t necessary. Call your pediatrician for advice on whether your child should be seen for follow up or treated with antibiotics.
For those children who develop Lyme disease, the most common symptom is a “bulls-eye” circular rash that occurs 3-30 days after the tick bit at the site of the tick bite. Other symptoms include fatigue, stiff neck, numbness in arms and legs, or facial paralysis. If you notice any of these symptoms, let your doctor know. The doctor may want to perform a diagnostic blood test and begin antibiotic treatment. Most patients treated with antibiotics for Lyme disease have a complete cure. Late symptoms occur months or even years later and include severe headaches, arthritis, joint swelling, and heart and central nervous system problems.
In the past, the Health Department would identify ticks and analyze them for B. burgdorferi. This service is no longer available. There was a Lyme vaccine for people but manufacturing was discontinued in 2002. There is still a vaccine for pets. In case you’re wondering, you cannot get Lyme disease from cats and dogs or mosquitoes.
My dog remains Lyme and tick free. My daughter never developed a rash and will probably not develop Lyme disease from that tick. My family and I will still hang out in our backyard. During the summer we will be at Green Lakes State Park many days each week. And every night, we will check for ticks.
More information on ticks and Lyme disease can be found at the links below.
New York State Department of Health
Centers for Desease Control and Prevention (CDC)