The peak season for Lyme disease is late spring through summer – yes, that’s beginning right about now. This is a function of both the tick life cycle as well as the increased amount of outdoor time that we enjoy with the arrival of nice weather. New England has one of the highest rates of Lyme disease in the country. The reported cases in Maine have been rising steadily over the past several years, with 970 new cases reported in 2009.
Lyme disease is an infection that primarily affects small animals, but it can also infect people. The infection spreads to humans when a tick bites an infected animal, picks up the infection, and then carries the infection to a person by biting the person.
As with many health conditions, the best defense is a good offense. The most effective way to avoid Lyme disease is to avoid any tick exposure. This means avoiding wooded or bushy areas, locations with high grass or lots of leaf litter. However, this is impractical for many of us.
Preventing bites and recognizing exposure to ticks early are much more realistic and relatively simple ways to protect ourselves. Our clothing is our first line of defense. Wearing long sleeves and long pants in outdoor areas where ticks may be present is a good start. If the clothing is light colored, it will be easier to see ticks. Pants can be tucked into socks and even taped to prevent ticks from climbing up the inside of pant legs. Clothes can also be treated with permethrin, available at outdoors and camping stores, to repel ticks from attaching to them. After clothes are worn outdoors, wash them in hot water and dry on high heat to kill any ticks you may have missed.
In addition, Tick repellents containing 20 to 30 percent DEET can be applied to the skin.
At the end of every day outdoors, you should do a “body check” looking for any ticks that may have attached themselves despite your efforts. If you find a tick, you should carefully remove it by gently pulling it straight out with tweezers. Wash the area well and use an antibiotic ointment or other topical antiseptic afterward.
Do not use petroleum jelly, nail polish or other home remedies to remove a tick or treat a bite.
Removing ticks quickly is helpful in preventing Lyme disease as it is extremely unlikely to acquire infection from a tick that has been on the body for 24 hours or less.
Dr. Amy Movius is a pediatric intensive care specialist at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. Read more articles by her and other professionals at EMMC’s Healthy Living site.