Health & Medicine

Be watchful of ticks and Lyme disease during summer months

Jessica Pennington
Jessica Pennington

During the summer, many people spend time outdoors hiking, gardening or mowing the lawn. While it’s enjoyable to spend time outside, it’s important to be on the lookout for bugs that carry bacteria or viruses that cause disease — particularly ticks.

Infected black legged ticks can transmit Lyme disease to humans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are more than 329,000 new cases of Lyme disease each year in the United States, most often in the Northeast and upper Midwest. Knowing the symptoms can help you catch the disease earlier, preventing it from spreading within the body.

Ticks feed on animals like mice, squirrels, birds and deer, by sucking their blood. Ticks can become infected with Lyme disease by feeding on other infected animals. Once they bite another animal or human, the disease can then be passed on.

While ticks can attach themselves to any part of the body, they are commonly found in areas that are hard to see, like the groin, scalp and armpits. It’s imperative after outdoor activities — especially those that include being in tall grass or a wooded area — to check your body for ticks and remove them immediately, as they must be attached to the body for at least 24 hours before they can infect someone with Lyme disease.

While adult ticks can transmit Lyme disease, most people are infected through the bites of nymphs — immature ticks that are less than two millimeters. These ticks typically feed during spring and summer months, and are difficult to see on the body.

Someone who is bitten by an infected tick might experience early signs and symptoms like fever, fatigue, headache, swollen lymph nodes or an erythema migrans — a rash that typically begins at the site of the tick bite. The rash might feel warm to the touch, and will gradually expand over a period of days. As it enlarges, it may resemble a bull’s-eye appearance.

If left untreated, the infection can spread to the heart, joints and nervous system, resulting in additional symptoms that include neck stiffness, severe headaches, dizziness or shortness of breath, inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, drooping of one or both sides of the face, nerve pain, an irregular heartbeat, additional EM rashes on other parts of the body, problems with short-term memory, tingling or numbness in the hands or feet, or pain in tendons, muscles, joints and bones.

Diagnosing Lyme disease can be difficult, as the symptoms are also found in other conditions. However, lab tests can help physicians identify antibodies to the bacteria that can confirm the diagnosis. Antibiotics are typically used to treat the disease, and if treated early in the infection stage, it is possible to make a full recovery.

While outdoors, it’s necessary to take steps to prevent Lyme disease, including using insect repellent and removing ticks promptly. If you experience symptoms of Lyme disease, contact your physician immediately to be tested and begin treatment as soon as possible.

Dr. Jessica Pennington is with KentuckyOne Health Primary Care Associates.