Awareness is key to preventing Lyme disease
Since I started practicing medicine in Wisconsin, many patients have told me they are concerned about getting Lyme disease and want to know how to prevent catching it.
Lyme disease is transmitted by ticks that bite wildlife, such as deer, and then spread bacteria after biting human skin. Symptoms are similar to the flu: fever, fatigue, rash, joint and body aches.
You don’t see this condition often in the large urbanized areas where I grew up, but it’s more common in Wisconsin and in the upper Midwest where there are more wooded areas and grasslands.
Cases of tick-borne illnesses usually occur in the spring and summer when more people are outside, and smaller kids are more prone to catching them if they play on grass or low-lying vegetation. Ticks may also linger in forests where people enjoy hiking, camping and hunting.
It’s unusual to die from Lyme disease, but it can have serious long-term effects if not detected early.
If it is caught in time, Lyme disease can be eradicated with antibiotics. However, people who have not sought treatment soon enough have ended up with chronic joint pain and complications to the heart and central nervous system.
While it is important for children to go outside in the warmer months of the year and take advantage of the fresh air and opportunity to exercise, parents should continually look over their child’s skin from head to toe because ticks can go anywhere. Normally, it takes 24 to 48 hours for Lyme disease to spread.
If you find a tick on yourself or your child, remove it immediately with a pair of tweezers. Grab the tick by its head with the tweezers and forcibly remove it, and then make sure no part of the tick is left in the skin. This is the most effective way to remove ticks. Age-old remedies like applying gasoline, petroleum jelly or alcohol to the skin will not remove the ticks or prevent them from spreading Lyme disease.
There are a number of ways to minimize the chances of catching Lyme disease. For example, tuck your pants inside your socks so ticks don’t crawl inside your pant legs. Also, try to wear clothing that is not loose-fitting, so ticks can’t move inside your clothes and bite you.
Finally, many over-the-counter repellents are an excellent remedy to keep ticks away, especially if they have a product called DEET, a yellow-colored oil that not only keeps away ticks but also mosquitoes, chiggers, fleas and other insects that can cause disease. Picaridin and permethrin are two other repellents made from natural products that will last on clothing for a number of weeks.
This is the time of the year to enjoy the outdoors, but everyone needs to be aware of tick-borne illnesses and ways to prevent them. If your family plans on going places where ticks may be present, be on the lookout for them so they don’t ruin your summer.
Mario Piverger is a family medicine physician at the UW-Health clinic in Fitchburg.