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Lyme disease: know facts, prevention techniques

  • Published
  • By Capt. Kerry Ciolek
  • 66th MDG Public Health and Immunizations element chief
When the weather is warm and people spend more time outside, individuals need to be aware of ticks and Lyme disease.

Ticks and tick bites are not generally high on most people's lists of health considerations, but the potential for contracting tick-borne diseases is definitely worth knowing about. Lyme disease is the top arthropod-borne illness in the United States.

The blacklegged or "deer tick" is common in Massachusetts and carries Lyme disease. These ticks range in size from the small larval, approximately 1.5 millimeters, to an adult size at about 15 millimeters (5/8 inch) when engorged with a blood meal. Small ticks are often difficult to detect, and many people diagnosed with Lyme disease do not recall finding a tick attached to their bodies.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health's Web site at, Lyme disease is caused by bacteria spread by infected ticks.

Both people and animals can be infected. The disease is most commonly found along the East Coast, the upper Midwest and in the valleys of the far West regions of the U.S. The disease is most likely to spread between April and November, when ticks are most active.

Lyme disease is spread when an infected tick attaches to and bites a host. However, being bitten by a blacklegged tick does not mean automatic transmission of the disease.
The tick must be attached for at least 24 hours to pass on the bacteria, so removing the tick promptly will greatly decrease the chance of becoming infected.

According to the MDPH's Web site, symptoms of Lyme disease include, but are not limited to: Early stage (days to weeks): Sometimes a rash will develop where the tick was attached. The rash appears from three days to a month after the bite. It often starts as a small red area then spreads, clearing up in the center so it looks like a donut. Flu-like symptoms, such as fever, headache, stiff neck, sore and aching muscles and joints, fatigue and swollen glands, are also common in the early stages of Lyme disease. These early symptoms often go away after a few weeks, but the person may remain infected. Without medical treatment, about half the infected people will get the rash again in other places on their bodies, and many will experience more serious problems.

■Later stage (months to years): The joints, nervous system and heart can become affected. Approximately 60 percent of untreated Lyme disease patients develop arthritis in the large joints, such as the knees, elbows and wrists. Ten to 20 percent will develop a nervous system problem such as meningitis, facial weakness (Bell's palsy) or other problems with nerves of the head, weakness or pain in the hands, arms, feet and or legs. Symptoms can last for months, shifting between mild or severe. An individual's heart beat can also be slowed by the disease.

To prevent tick bites and Lyme disease, there are a few simple precautions. The best precaution is to avoid areas where deer ticks are likely to be found. Those living in or visiting a high-risk area should try to follow these precautions:

■Wear light-colored, long-sleeved shirts and long pants, and tuck pant legs tightly into socks. Light colors will help people spot ticks on their clothes before they reach exposed skin. Ticks tend to climb upwards -- tucking pants into socks will help keep large ticks on the outside of clothing.

■When possible, stay to the middle of paths and trails when hiking.
■Use repellents containing DEET, and choose a product that will provide sufficient protection for the amount of time spent outdoors.
■Always follow the label directions for proper use of DEET products. Products containing DEET should not be used on children less than 2 months old and should be used in concentrations of 30 percent or lower for older children and adults.
■The insecticide, Permethrin, can also be used to protect against ticks. Always use this product as directed.
■Check for ticks every day on legs, groin, armpits, along the hairline and in or behind the ears. As ticks are tiny, look for new freckles.
■Treat dogs and cats with tick preventative products according to label instructions.

Dogs may exhibit signs of Lyme disease, however, in cats the disease is not as easily identified.
■Keep the yard and lawn from growing excessively long. Prune branches to increase sun exposure and remove both leaf litter and mouse habitats.

If you find a tick on your body, remove it promptly using fine point tweezers. The tick should not be squeezed or twisted, grasp it close to the skin and pull straight out with steady pressure. Gasoline, chemicals and matches are unnecessary for tick removal. Clean and disinfect the wound.

Live ticks that have been detached from a person can be tested for Lyme disease. When removing a tick do not: use sharp forceps; crush, puncture or squeeze the tick's body; apply substances such as gasoline, petroleum jelly, lidocaine (Xylocaine); apply heat with a match or hot nail; use a twisting or jerking motion to remove the tick; or handle a tick with your bare hands.

The 66th Medical Group Public Health Office will submit ticks for Lyme disease testing, however, rules apply. Tests performed on live ticks are the most accurate.

Ticks should be submitted in a closed, dry container.

For more information on Lyme disease, go online to the Center for Disease Control at .htm or to the Massachusetts Public Health Web site at:, or contact Public Health at (781) 377-1393.