Preventing Lyme and other tickborne infections

By Abby Norman | Jun 15, 2014
Abby Norman

If you’ve been keeping up with the news lately, you’ve probably heard a lot about ticks; maybe even more than usual.

I know that this time of year everyone is talking about Lyme disease, but this year another tickborne infection is landing in the headlines: Powassan virus. When local Midcoast artist Lyn Snow passed away from the virus last fall, it ushered in a new awareness of this rare, but potentially deadly virus.

Tickborne infections more commonly seen in Maine include Lyme disease, anaplasmosis and babesiosis. Lyme, the most prevalent of these, can be difficult to diagnose in its early stage, but is easily treated. Anaplasmosis may be hard to recognize early on because symptoms can be very non-specific, but the diagnosis can be made easily using a blood test once suspicion for this infection is raised. It too is easily treated. Similarly, babesiosis, still uncommon in Maine, can be easily diagnosed with blood tests and is not difficult to treat.

Here’s what you need to know

— Powassan virus is extremely rare. There have only been about 50 cases reported in the United States in the last 10 years, mostly in New England and the upper Midwest. Researchers still have much to learn about Powassan, but some suspect that most human infections with this virus do not result in serious illness. Unfortunately, when they do, there is no specific treatment to offer.

— Practice tick exposure prevention practices. While many of these illnesses can be diagnosed and treated as soon as you start to feel sick, your best bet is focus on tick exposure prevention. Stick to the middle of trails and avoid bushy areas with high grass and leaf litter. Use DEET-containing insect repellent or wear clothing treated with permethrin. Wear long-sleeve shirts and pants and socks with your shoes. Consider wearing light-colored clothing. It’s extremely important to thoroughly check your body after you’ve been outside. Bathe or shower as soon as possible to wash off any unattached ticks. If you have long hair, comb through it to make sure the ticks aren’t hiding out, and check every nook and cranny. Ticks are small before they’ve taken a bite and can be easy to miss if you’re just giving your body a quick glance.

— If you find a tick that has bitten you, it can be tricky to remove it. The best method to remove a tick is with tweezers. Grasp the tick near its mouth, as close to your skin as possible and pull up gently but firmly. Dislodging the tick this way will help it stay intact. If the tick does come apart, try to remove as much of the tick as possible. Once the body of the tick is removed, it can no longer transmit Lyme, even if the head is still under the skin. As soon as the tick is removed, wash the bite with rubbing alcohol and keep it clean.

— Most tick bites will not be dangerous. However three key symptoms to look for are: a rash near the area of the bite (classically in a “bulls-eye” pattern, but this is not always the case), fatigue and fever. These usually develop within a few weeks from the day you got the tick bite. Not everyone with Lyme finds a rash, and other tickborne infections are less likely to cause rash. If you are feeling as though you have a bad flu but it’s not flu season, get checked out by your healthcare provider, especially if you know or suspect that you have had a recent tick exposure.

Many people come to Maine each year excited to take in our beautiful hiking trails and other outdoor adventures. Those of us who live here year-round wait through every cold winter for this time of year when we can explore nature. While we need to take care of our pets and ourselves when it comes to ticks, there is no reason to avoid the great outdoors. Your best defense against tickborne infections is to be aware that ticks are a part of the nature we so enjoy and ensure they don’t decide to hitch a ride!

If you need medical attention, contact your primary care provider as soon as possible. We are fortunate to have two infectious disease specialist physicians at Pen Bay as well. Pen Bay Medicine and Infectious Diseases serves as a resource for providers evaluating possible tickborne infections, in addition to many other infectious disease problems. For more information, call 593-5678.

Abby Norman is Pen Bay Medical Center’s Health Guide. She is also a freelance science writer and has contributed to many publications, including The National Medical Records Briefing and The Almost Doctor’s Channel (online).

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