Tips for Reducing Your Risk of Tick-Borne Diseases
From taking in the foliage to soaking up the warmth of the sun before winter hits, fall is prime time for outdoor adventure in New England. It’s also prime time for ticks.
Thanks to last year’s mild winter and the hot, wet spring and summer seasons, the tick population in our region is thriving. That means anyone who spends time outdoors—especially in grassy, brushy, or wooded areas—is likely to be in close contact with ticks.
Beyond the sheer nuisance of dealing with them, ticks pose a very real risk of contracting tick-borne illnesses including Lyme disease and babesiosis.
At this point in time, most people are familiar with the telltale bullseye rash that sometimes develops with Lyme disease as well as the lingering symptoms including sore joints, severe headache, neck stiffness, and shortness of breath. But not everyone knows about the increasingly common co-infection, babesiosis.
The disease, which for decades was extremely rare in the United States, is now considered endemic (regularly occurring) in the northeast. While many people with babesiosis develop no symptoms, others develop flu-like symptoms, including fevers, chills, sweats and muscle aches. In some cases, babesiosis can lead to organ failure and even death in people who have compromised immune systems or other risk factors.
While there’s no vaccine for Lyme or babesiosis, you can reduce your risk of contracting both diseases by taking a few precautions when spending time outdoors.
- Walk on cleared trails and stay in the center of the trail, to minimize contact with leaf litter, brush, and overgrown grasses, where ticks are most likely to be found.
- Minimize skin exposure by wearing socks, long pants (tucked into your socks), and a long-sleeved shirt.
- TIP: Wearing light-colored clothing makes it easier to spot and remove ticks before they attach to your body.
- Apply repellents to skin and clothing. Follow the instructions on the product label.
- Products that contain DEET (N,N-diethylmetatoluamide) can be directly applied to exposed skin and to clothing, to repel ticks. Read and follow the label instructions regarding how, where, and how often to apply the repellent.
- Permethrin products, which are applied to clothing and footwear (NEVER to skin), kill ticks that come in contact with treated surfaces. Once applied, it can remain effective for several washings.
- Perform tick checks promptly after finishing activities outdoors—ideally before heading indoors.
If you spot a tick—remember they can be as small as a poppy seed—remove it from your body, clothes, and pets.
Once inside, conduct a full-body exam for ticks. If you’re alone, use a mirror to view all parts of the body. Be sure to check behind the knees, under arms, along your hairline and in your hair, around your waist-band area, as well as between your thighs and groin area.
If you find a tick that’s attached, remove it immediately. Use fine-tipped tweezers to grab the tick at its mouth (closest to the skin), and slowly and steadily pull the tick straight out.
If you’ve found the tick immediately after coming indoors, there’s no need to panic.
Once the tick is removed, thoroughly wash your hands, and clean the bite area with soap and water, antiseptic, or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
If the tick is engorged or was attached to your body for more than 36 hours, contact your doctor for next steps.
Even if the tick was not attached for 36+ hours, watch for symptoms of tick-borne illness over the next several weeks. If you have any flu-like symptoms or a rash in the bite area, contact your doctor.
James Poole, MD, is a Hospitalist and Director of SVMC Inpatient Services.