Because Lyme disease is not a widely well-known condition, it’s likely that people have a lot of questions about tick bites and contracting infections. Here’s a breakdown to help educate you about the steps you should take to protect you and your family from Lyme disease.
First of all, not all ticks carry Lyme disease. Your odds of catching Lyme disease from a tick bite range from zero to about 50%. Thomas Mather, a professor of public health entomology at the University of Rhode Island, states that ticks most likely bite millions of people in the U.S. every year, but there are only about 30,000 cases of Lyme disease reported annually to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi, which is found in the guts of some tick species. The bacteria can move from the gut to the tick’s salivary glands and then is transferred into a person’s skin when the tick begins feeding. So, what are the factors that can determine whether you’ll contract Lyme disease? They include the type of tick species, where it came from, and how the tick has been feeding.
There are two species of ticks that are carriers for Lyme disease: the black-legged tick (more commonly known as the deer tick), found east of the Rocky Mountains, and the Western black-legged tick, found west of the Rockies. They’re both a little smaller than other ticks (usually the size of a poppy or sesame seed, depending on their age). Bites from other species of ticks most likely won’t cause Lyme disease – although you could be at risk for other types of infections. One study found that in the Northeast and Upper Midwest regions in the U.S., about half of deer ticks are infected with Lyme. In the Southern and Western parts of the country, infection rates are generally less than 10%.
Even if you’ve been bitten by a Lyme-carrying tick, it’s still possible you won’t contract the condition. The length of feeding can determine whether you’ll get infected. In most cases, the tick must be attached and feeding for 36–48 hours or more before the Lyme bacteria can actually be transmitted to you. Some CDC studies suggest that the tick needs to be attached for even longer (closer to 48–72 hours) to be able to transmit the infection. This extended length of time means there’s an increased chance you’ll be able to spot the tick and remove it before it has the opportunity to transmit Lyme.
Another main factor in whether you’ll contract Lyme is where you’re located in the U.S. Most infections occur Northeast (from Virginia to Maine), in North-central states (mostly in Wisconsin and Minnesota), and the West Coast (mainly in northern California). Ticks are found in areas where animals are infected with the bacteria, where ticks can transmit the bacteria, and where there are animal hosts (like mice and deer) that can provide food for the ticks. Ticks generally also need constant, relatively high humidity at the ground level to function.
If you want to steer clear of ticks, make sure you’re avoiding places with heavily wooded areas or brushy and grassy spaces. Campers, hikers, outdoor workers, and children are all very likely to come across ticks. If you’re outdoors, try to always stick to clear paths so that you can avoid overgrown brush or leaf litter. It’s also essential to keep yourself protected when outdoors by wearing long-sleeved shirts, long pants, closed-toe shoes, and tucking your socks into your shoes to avoid leaving skin uncovered. Some experts also suggest wearing light-colored clothing so that you can easily spot any ticks that might have tried to attach to you. It’s a good idea to apply a tick pesticide (such as permethrin) to your clothes to deter ticks – the best part is that you only have to reapply it every couple of months. Additionally, using an insect repellent on any skin you’ve left exposed can also keep you safe from ticks.
Remember: it’s essential for you to do tick checks anytime you return from being outdoors. It can be helpful to do physical searches so that you can feel a tick you might otherwise not have noticed. Also, because ticks can attach to hard-to-spot places (like behind the knee or on the scalp), it can be even more crucial do an extremely thorough check. Ticks also tend to attach in places like the armpit, navel, groin, and buttocks, so don’t forget to examine those places as well. It can be helpful to take a shower after coming home so that you can wash away any unattached ticks.
Let’s say you’ve been bitten by a tick. What should you do next? First, you can try to remove the tick right away (either with Tweezers or with specific tick removal kits). If you have been bitten, you do have the option of ordering test kits from InfectoLab Americas to see if you might have contracted Lyme disease. These tests can help you determine which treatment options you should follow next. If you think you’ve been bitten, you might experience a red bullseye rash that can appear on your skin at the site of the bite. It can show up anywhere from three to 30 days after the initial bite. However, the rash only occurs in about 60–90% of cases, so you might still have Lyme disease even if you don’t exhibit signs of a rash. You might also notice unexplainable fatigue and joint pain within the first six months. Other symptoms like fevers, dizziness, headaches, and muscle pain can also show up. It’s important to head to your doctor if you think you might have contracted Lyme disease. They’ll likely take a full medical history and can conduct a physical exam to rule out any other issues. They can then do an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) test to detect antibodies in the bacteria. A follow-up Western blot test can confirm a Lyme disease diagnosis.
It’s quite possible to be bitten by a tick and not contract Lyme disease, but you should follow these steps to avoid ticks and to get treated if you have been bitten.