Lyme disease has spread to all 50 states.
With reported cases of tick-borne illnesses on the upswing across the nation, experts and specialists say the public needs to do more to avoid risks.
A record number of cases of tick-borne diseases were reported by state and local health departments in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In total tick-borne illnesses
“Reported cases capture only a fraction of the overall number of people with tick-borne illnesses,” health experts for the CDC recently noted. “Even so, the number of reported cases of Lyme disease in the United States has tripled since the late 1990s.”
Most Lyme disease cases are reported from May to August. The illness often occurs when a young, infected tick called a nymph bites into skin and transmits bacteria.
“Basically, the tick that carries Lyme is found in tall grass,” Dr. Amy Edwards, the associate medical director of Pediatric Infection Control for Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland told Healthline. “So running around in unmown fields is a risk, [as are] camping and backpacking, etc.”
The tiny arachnid prefers to attach itself to warm parts of the body, such as your groin, armpits, or scalp.
Lia Gaertner, a scientist who sits on the advisory board of the Bay Area Lyme Foundation, said as experts learn that the disease appears to cause long term problems in some people there’s a push to heighten awareness around the infection. The Silicon Valley–based nonprofit organization raises funds for research into finding better ways to diagnose and cure the disease. said.
She said people put themselves at risk for Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses without knowing it by:
- Being too tired to tick check. Children are at the most at risk because they are outside playing more often than others, and are lower to the ground.
- Not knowing what a tick looks like. It can be as small as the period at the end of a sentence.
- Sleeping with your dog without a thorough check. Or letting your kids cuddle with the dog on the way home from the park.
- Believing city parks are OK. Sitting on logs and walking in tall grasses can put you at risk, even in an urban park.
- Raking leaves. Many ticks hide under leaves, particularly in the south as ticks tend to hide from the heat and sun
- Thinking you’re safe because your neighborhood has no deer. Ticks live in areas even where deer do not. Mice, squirrels, and other animals can be carriers depending on where you live
- Throwing away the tick. If you throw it away, you lose the opportunity to learn to identify what type of tick it is and have it tested for pathogens. Check your tick with this
CDC resource. Alternately you can send your tick in for testing at TickReport.
Gaertner says they don’t want to make people scared but educate them on the dangers.
“We don’t want people to stop enjoying the outdoors,” Gaertner said. “It’s so important for mental health and happiness. We don’t want people to be paranoid, but to be aware.”
More counties are reporting the disease and there are a number of reasons why, Gaertner said. The Bay Area Lyme Foundation raises funds for research into finding better ways to diagnose and cure the bacterial disease.
The bacteria that causes Lyme disease can result in flu-like symptoms, including headache and fatigue. It’s not always easy to diagnose. For years, health experts advised that an infected tick leaves behind a skin rash that often looks like a bull’s-eye.
While that’s true for some people, not everyone will have a rash shaped like a bull’s eye. Lyme can be treated with antibiotics, but if left untreated, the disease can lead to long-term health problems.
“We have a disease and a tick problem that is definitely rising and is being attributed by several factors including building homes in natural areas, expanding our urban environments, climate change, animal migration patterns, and weather patterns,” Gaertner said.
A study funded by the Bay Area Lyme Foundation asked citizens across the nation to submit ticks to Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Of the 16,000 ticks collected from 49 U.S. states and Puerto Rico, researchers there found ticks capable of carrying Lyme and other tick-borne diseases from 83 counties in 24 states where these ticks had not been previously recorded, according to the foundation.
“People can actually put themselves at risk by thinking that Lyme disease is limited to the Northeast,” Edwards said.
“I think people assume they won’t get Lyme disease because we haven’t really had Lyme here in Ohio in the past,” Edwards said. “It has only been in the last two years that we have seen a significant increase in Lyme cases as the disease moves west.”
That means everyone, from Connecticut to California, North Dakota to Texas, needs to take precautions. The CDC offers the following tips:
- Use insect repellent that contain permethrin to treat clothing and gear, such as boots, pants, socks, and tents.
- Wear clothing pre-treated with permethrin.
- Conduct a full-body tick check — on yourself, children, and pets — as soon as coming in from the outdoors. One of the easiest ways to do this is get undressed and hop in the shower.
- Put clothes in a dryer 10 minutes or more after coming in from the outdoors. Check and clean the lint trap, too.