Warmer weather in Central Virginia means the ticks are becoming more active. Ticks can harbor and transmit a host of diseases. Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne disease reported in Virginia and it is transmitted to humans via the deer tick. The name comes from the town where it was first diagnosed in 1977: Lyme, Conn. Ticks can also cause Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Babesiosis, meningioencephalitis and Ehrlichiosis.
Lyme disease cases in Virginia have steadily increased since 2000. In 2007, there was a sharp rise in cases and it has remained high. Tick bites most commonly occur in the late spring and early summer.
The disease is caused by a spiral-shaped bacterium called a spirochete. A tick carrying this bacteria attaches to the human skin and begins to feed off the blood. The bacteria can then enter the human blood from the tick. The tick feeds for two to four days, gets larger or engorged, and then falls off the skin.
Keep in mind several facts in regard to the risk of getting Lyme disease. Only about half or fewer of deer ticks will carry the bacteria. Secondly, the tick must be attached to the skin for a minimum of 24 to 48 hours before the bacteria can be transmitted. A tick that is brushed off the skin cannot transmit the disease. Finally, only about 0.5 percent of people will actually get Lyme disease from a tick bite.
If you find a tick attached to your skin you should remove it immediately. The best way to do this is by using fine-tipped tweezers, pulling at the mouth part, not the body. Squeezing an attached tick’s body may increase the risk of transmitting disease. Pull firmly and repeatedly until the tick releases its hold. Placing the removed tick in alcohol will kill it and preserve it for identification should symptoms develop. Methods such as using a lit match, petroleum jelly or nail polish to remove an attached tick are not recommended.
The symptoms of Lyme disease begin in about seven to 10 days. About 80 percent of people with the infection will develop a target-shaped rash, circular and red with clearing around the center. It will expand over several days. The other 20 percent of those infected won’t have a rash or it goes unnoticed. Localized allergic skin reactions to tick or other bug bites can be mistaken for a true Lyme disease rash. Flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills and muscle aches can occur.
There are tests for Lyme disease; however, like every test, they are not 100 percent. Diagnosis should be based primarily on history of a tick bite and the clinical symptoms. Treatment of Lyme disease should be started only if symptoms develop. Antibiotics are prescribed for two to four weeks to kill the bacteria.
Like every medical condition, prevention is important. Measures to reduce your risk of Lyme disease include avoiding tick-infested areas, wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants tucked into socks, wearing light colored clothing to make it easier to spot ticks on your body, and applying bug repellant (DEET). Also, inspect your skin after coming in from outdoors. These actions can reduce the number of tick bites and the risk of disease.
The content in this column is for informational purposes only. Consult your physician for appropriate individual treatment. Dr. Reynolds practices Family Medicine in Chesterfield.