Since Lyme disease comes from a bacteria, the condition can be treated with antibiotics, and it doesn't have to be a big concern for people spending time outdoors and close to wooded and grassy areas. But it is important that people are aware of ticks and the potential hazards a tick bite can bring, says Dr. Vincent Cantone, an internist and pediatrician at Smithsburg Family Medicine Center in Smithsburg. Cantone also is a member of the Wilderness Medical Society.
As a hiker and hunter, Cantone spends a lot of time in tick habitats. "I have never gotten Lyme disease. I get bitten by ticks all the time," he says. "Awareness is 90 percent of the cure."
Spring, early summer and fall are the peak activity times for ticks, according to information from the Rutgers University Cooperative Extension. The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reports that in 2005 the number of confirmed cases of Lyme disease increased by almost 40 percent from the number of confirmed cases in 2004. Health department officials believe the greater number of cases is primarily due to increased awareness.
A tick is a parasitic mite that feeds on the blood of animals and humans. A tick becomes infected with Lyme disease when it feeds on an animal that has the disease. The tick can then pass the disease on to another animal through a bite.
Many different types of ticks exist, but only two varieties transmit Lyme disease. Only one type, the blacklegged tick or deer tick - about the size of a poppy seed or a sesame seed - is typically found on the East Coast, Cantone says.
Ticks prefer to feed on wild animals such as mice, birds, raccoon and deer, but will also bite dogs, cats, livestock and humans, according to information from Rutgers.
"Ticks hang out around the fringes of forests and meadows," Cantone says. "They hang out in areas that are highly traveled by mice and deer."
Humans come into contact with ticks when they brush through tick habitats such as fields, forest undergrowth and leaf piles. Because deer ticks are so small, they can easily burrow through clothes in search of skin.
Ticks most often embed themselves in armpits, around the ears, inside the belly button, the back of the knees, in and around hair lines, in the groin area and in the waistline, according to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If a tick does carry Lyme disease, it must feed off human blood for at least 12 to 24 hours before it begins to transmit the Lyme disease bacteria, according to information from Rutgers University. Ticks should be removed as soon as they are discovered. Only when the tick is embedded is there risk of disease transmission, Cantone explains.
Cantone recommends taking preventive measures to reduce the risk of exposure to ticks when working or playing outdoors especially in wooded areas, tall grasses and undergrowth. Following are tips for prevention from Cantone and the CDC:
If you can, wear long sleeves and pants when walking through fields or wooded areas. Tuck pants into socks to prevent ticks from crawling under pant legs.
Wear light-colored clothing, "because then you can see the ticks easier," Cantone explains. Ticks are dark in color.
"As soon as you get home, shower, using a washcloth from head to toe," Cantone says. Because it takes ticks several hours to attach themselves, scrubbing thoroughly could remove ticks.
Wash clothes if there is any question that ticks could have attached to clothing. If clothes can't be washed, like sneakers or a jacket, dry the item at a high heat in the dryer for 10 to 15 minutes. The heat in the dryer is enough to kill ticks.
Use over-the-counter repellents. Look for repellents with DEET and follow directions for use. Cantone recommends Sawyer Family Controlled Release 20 percent DEET lotion.
Check for ticks or tick bites. If you find an embedded tick, remove it using a pair of tweezers. Grab the tick close to the skin and pull straight up. Make sure all parts of the tick are removed. If you suspect the tick has been embedded for more than two days, or if you notice a bull's-eye rash mark, consult with your doctor.
Check pets for ticks. Lyme disease can also affect pets, especially dogs. A vaccine against Lyme disease is available for dogs, and tick control products also can be effective.