Thirty years ago, Lyme disease was a little-known problem in just two small areas of the U.S. Today, it’s a whole different story, and experts say this spring and summer could see a record increase in this tick-borne illness in broad regions of the Northeast and upper Midwest.
The red flag came last summer, when a plague of mice carrying Lyme-infested ticks inundated New York’s Hudson Valley — the epicenter for the illness. For Lyme researchers Felicia Keesing and Richard Ostfeld, that was a harbinger of bad things to come this year, as NPR.org recently reported.
Keesing, an ecologist at Bard College in Annandale, N.Y., specializing in tick-borne diseases, and her husband, Richard Ostfeld, a disease ecologist with the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y., have been studying Lyme disease for more than 20 years. Their prediction technique for the next year’s Lyme outbreak is simple: Count the number of mice in the current year. The higher the number, the worse the next outbreak will be.
That means the flood of mice last summer portends a big spike in illness this summer. “I'm sorry to say that's the scenario we're expecting," Ostfeld told NPR.
Lyme disease is transmitted to humans through bacteria from the bite of an infected black-legged tick (also called a deer tick). The ticks, about the size of a poppy seed, cling to grasses and plants and attach themselves to people as they brush by. The ticks then burrow in hard-to-see places, like behind the ears and in the armpits and groin area.
Once the bacteria enter a person’s bloodstream, they can cause fever, fatigue, headache, joint pain and rashes. If not treated early enough with antibiotics, Lyme can attack the circulatory and nervous system, causing severe muscle pain, irregular heartbeat and cognitive problems.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracks the number of reported Lyme cases in the U.S., which has tripled in the last few decades to about 30,000 cases annually, although one CDC epidemiologist told NPR she thinks the actual number is closer to 300,000, including unreported cases.
In 2015, 95 percent of confirmed Lyme cases were reported from 14 states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin.
If you live in these areas, it’s not just hiking and camping that can expose you to ticks. The CDC reports that most people get Lyme while walking or gardening around their house.
Here’s how to protect yourself:
Check yourself every day for ticks if you live in a Lyme state. Don’t forget to check the places they like to hide, including behind the ears, on the scalp, and the armpits and groin. This CDC site also has helpful information about treatment, the blood test for Lyme disease and other useful tips.
Dry your clothes before washing. If you’ve been outside, take off your clothes and throw them in the dryer on high heat for at least 20 minutes . Washing, even in hot water, won’t help kill ticks (the little suckers won’t drown), but baking them in a hot dryer will do the trick.
If you find a tick, use tweezers and squeeze it by the head, not the body, to remove it. Squeezing the body “will cause the tick to spew all of its stomach contents into the skin, and you'll be more likely acquire whatever infection that tick was carrying,” Lyme expert Brian Fallow, M.D., director of the Lyme and Tick-Borne Diseases Research at Columbia University Medical Center, told NPR.
Beware bare skin. Don’t make it easy for ticks to bite you. Wear long-sleeved tops, long pants, socks and sturdy shoes when tromping through forested areas. Use repellents with DEET on exposed skin and clothing.
Seek treatment early. If you think you may have been bitten, be on the lookout for a red rash that slowly gets larger — sometimes resulting in a bull’s eye shape — as well as flu-like symptoms and joint pain. If you start to have any of these symptoms, don’t wait to see a doctor. The sooner treatment gets started, the better your chances of recovery.