Family Medicine

Can Lyme disease be prevented?

If you’re planning to head outside for some yard work or a hike in the woods, take some time to think about Lyme disease. As the longer days and warmer weather beckon us into our yards, parks, and wooded areas, remember that those are the environments where this year’s generation of ticks, the carriers of Lyme disease, are emerging.

Lyme disease is caused by bacteria that ticks ingest when feeding upon infected animals such as birds, mice, chipmunks, raccoon and deer. Once infected, the ticks transmit the bacteria to the next animal, or host they bite.

According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only Pennsylvania and New York have had more reported cases of Lyme disease during the past several years. Last year, the CDC confirmed more than 3,100 cases of Lyme disease in our state.

There is currently no vaccine that will protect individuals fromLyme disease, so the best strategies against it are awareness and prevention. Lymerix®, the former “Lyme vaccine” was discontinued by the manufacturer earlier this decade for low provider utilization and vaccine cost issues.

As outside temperatures increase, so do the number of suspected Lyme disease cases that physicians see. That number will peak in late July or August, but the risk of Lyme disease in New Jersey will not disappear until the cold weather of late fall sets in.

Ticks lurk in woodlands, in leaf litter, and among the brush, trees, and dense ground cover of rural/suburban and landscaped areas. If you are going to be in contact with these areas, wear shoes or sneakers instead of sandals. It is also a good idea to wear light-colored clothes, which make it easier to spot ticks, long sleeves if possible, and to tuck your shirt into your pants and your pants into your socks. You may also consider using an insect repellent, but make sure to read and follow label directions carefully. Avoid putting these products on your face and hands or using them on children younger than three years old. When you come in from outside, take these precautions:

  • Carefully examine yourself and your children, paying particular attention to the groin, armpits and the backs of legs and arms. Do not forget to look closely at the back of the neck and examine the scalp also.
  • When showering, use a washcloth. This can help to dislodge any loose ticks as they generally spend several hours on the body before attaching.
  • If you find a tick, grasp it firmly (preferably with tweezers) as close to the skin as possible and apply firm, backward pressure to pull it out. Then clean the area with soap, water and a topical antiseptic.

If you are bitten by a tick, keep an eye out for the telltale “bulls-eye” rash of Lyme disease – a pale center surrounded by a bright red rim. If you develop other symptoms, such as fatigue, headache, stiff neck, fever, or muscle and joint pain, be sure to contact your physician immediately. It may take an attached tick up to 72 hours to transmit the Lyme bacteria to its host. For this reason, there is an accepted protocol for one dose of antibiotics, if given to an adult patient, within 72 hours of the tick bite to prevent Lyme disease.

Lyme disease can cause serious health problems, but it is also curable, particularly if treatment begins early in the course of the disease. As stated, Lyme disease is a bacterial infection, thus, antibiotics are very effective against it. In the early stages of infection these antibiotics can be taken orally, and will usually lead to a cure within a few weeks. Later stages of the disease may require the use of intravenous antibiotics.

As the summer heats up, don’t forget to remember about Lyme disease

Originally published in The University Doctor's MedicaLink- 4/09

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