Lyme disease is a particular threat in Pennsylvania this year, because disease-bearing ticks have been found in all of the state’s 67 counties. The State Health Department began an awareness campaign last month, called “Don’t Let a Tick Make You Sick.” Robert Fischer, MD, is doubly qualified to talk about Lyme disease: he’s an infectious disease doc at Einstein Healthcare Network and he once had Lyme disease and didn’t know it.
Dr. Fischer woke up one day years ago “feeling like death warmed over,” he said. He had a severe headache, a fever of 102 and ached all over. Dr. Fischer thought he had the flu or a wicked sinus infection, and he missed several days of work at Einstein.
“After five days, I started feeling better so I went to take a shower,” he said. “As I’m toweling off, I see I have bright red blotches all over my body. At that point, I realized I have Lyme disease.”
And no, he didn’t have a red bulls-eye rash, the symptom that’s been cited as evidence of Lyme. “Typically, it’s a big red blotch,” he said, and only one third of the time does the rash appear to be a bulls-eye.
Fischer realized that he’d probably been bitten by a disease-bearing tick the previous week, when he and his daughter had gone canoeing in the Pine Barrens and had a picnic lunch on a creek bank.
He didn’t follow rule one after potential exposure: examining himself for ticks when he got home. That’s a key to prevention, because there’s a two- to three-day “grace period” before ticks can cause an infection. “If you can find and remove the ticks within two or three days, then you’re safe,” he said.
The good news is, Lyme is curable with antibiotics, even if it’s not treated immediately. “There’s a wealth of incorrect information on the internet about the consequences of chronic Lyme disease,” Dr. Fischer said. Contrary to popular belief, Lyme disease can be cured with antibiotics even in late stages when people can develop nerve injury, arthritis and irregular heartbeat. “On the internet, there’s the widespread perception that once Lyme digs in, you’ll never get rid of it and are doomed to a life of misery and premature death,” Dr. Fischer said. “There’s no current scientifically valid evidence that any of it is true.”
Here are some recommendations to keep you and your family protected from ticks:
Keep From Being Bitten in the First Place
Ticks like warm, humid environments. That includes wooded and grassy areas. If you're on a trail, stay toward the center, and avoid walking through tall vegetation. Wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts.
Apply a DEET repellent on your skin, and permethrin on whatever you’re wearing or gear you’re carrying.
Check to Make Sure You Haven’t Been Bitten
Check yourself for ticks after you’ve been outdoors. Ticks can be sneaky little critters and you probably won’t feel their bite, so this should be a full-body examination. Look under your arms, around your waist, between your legs, around your ears, between your ears, behind your knees—even your belly button. And absolutely check your scalp and areas of body hair. If any part of your body is hard for you to check, use a mirror, or enlist the aid of a partner. Check your kids, too.
If You’ve Been Bitten
Remove ticks as soon as you notice them. Use fine-tip tweezers, and grip the tick with the tips of tweezers close to your skin. Apply steady, even pressure. Don’t squeeze the tick, and don’t twist it. Cleanse the area and your hands with an antiseptic solution. NOTE: Smearing the tick with petroleum jelly, applying a hot match against the bug’s back, dousing it with gasoline and other home remedies are not effective.
After You’ve Been Bitten
Be alert for a fever or rash. Call your health care provider if either one develops.