How to Prevent and Detect Tick-Borne Illnesses

From spring gardening to fall hiking, New England is known for some wonderful outdoor activities. But with many of these activities comes the risk of tick bites. Although some ticks are just a nuisance, others may carry tick-borne illnesses, like Lyme disease, anaplasmosis and babesiosis, to name a few. If left untreated, tick-borne illnesses can lead to more serious conditions, including chronic joint inflammation (Lyme arthritis), neurological issues, cognitive issues and heart rhythm irregularities.

Sometimes the early signs and symptoms of a tick-borne illness can resemble COVID-19 symptoms, so it’s important to know what to look for. Additionally, deer ticks, or black-legged ticks, which are commonly found in New England, can be active in any temperature above freezing. So even on those mild winter days, protect yourself and loved ones from tick bites and be sure you can recognize symptoms of tick-borne illness before it can lead to long-term damage.

Preventing and checking for tick bites.

Ticks are commonly found during everyday outdoor activities, including gardening, yard work and playing in the backyard. Because ticks can be incredibly small and resemble freckles, it’s important to be thorough in how you protect and check yourself and others.

Before you go out:

  • Dress in light-colored clothes, which makes it easier to spot ticks.
  • Minimize skin exposure with fitted clothing and tuck pants into socks when in wooded or grassy areas.
  • Use an EPA-registered tick repellent.
  • Treat clothing and gear with products containing 0.5% permethrin.

When you come in:

  • Check your clothing for ticks.
  • Look and feel for ticks on your body, including under the arms, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, back of the knees, in and around the hair, between the legs and around the waist.
  • Examine pets and gear closely.
  • Shower right away to help improve chances of washing off an unattached tick and easily perform a skin check.

Deer ticks live in lower habitats, such as grass, bushes and fallen logs, so another good preventative measure is to make your yard less inviting for ticks by keeping it tidy. Remove leaf litter and brush around your home regularly. Mow frequently to keep grass short and place wood chips or gravel between lawns and wooded areas to reduce tick migration. You should also keep play areas and swing sets away from shrubs, bushes and other vegetation.

How to properly remove a tick.

If you find a tick attached to your skin, it’s important to remove it properly and as quickly as possible. Use fine-point tweezers and pull it straight out, without twisting or jerking. This reduces the risk of leaving a portion of the tick attached. Clean the bite area and your hands thoroughly afterward. Also, be sure to dispose of the tick in a way that it can’t escape – put it in alcohol, place it in a sealed bag or flush it down the toilet.

Symptoms of tick-borne illness.

Tick-borne illnesses in the U.S. have more than doubled over the past two decades. Lyme disease from deer ticks is the most common tick-borne illness, with approximately 467,000 cases annually between 2010 and 2018. In most cases, a tick needs to be attached to a person for 36 to 48 hours before it can spread Lyme disease and it can take up to a month for symptoms to appear.

One of the primary symptoms of Lyme disease to look out for is an erythema migraines (EM) rash. An EM rash, which occurs in 70 to 80% of infected persons, can gradually expand over several days, taking on a target or bull’s-eye appearance. It may feel warm to the touch but is rarely itchy or painful. Other symptoms to watch for are fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint aches and swollen lymph nodes. If you notice any of these symptoms after a recent tick bite, see your doctor immediately to monitor risks and avoid long-term damage.

Despite treatment with a standard course of antibiotics, clinicians see persistent symptoms in about 10 to 20% of patients, referred to as chronic Lyme disease. Since the exact cause of chronic Lyme disease is unknown, treatment is debated. Some experts recommend a longer course of antibiotic therapy or intravenous treatment.

Tick-borne illness and prevention awareness.

Conditions like chronic Lyme disease are why preventative measures for tick bites are critical. But you don’t have to avoid the outdoors. Educating yourself, taking proper precautions and remaining self-aware are your best defenses for staying safe while enjoying the outdoors.

If you are concerned that you or a loved one may have encountered a tick bite, call your primary care physician. If you need help finding a provider, Harvard Pilgrim members can use this tool and Tufts Health Plan members can use this tool.

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