DOVER –– Even though tick bites are usually associated with hot summer weather, unusually high winter temperatures raise the risk of bites which also increases the chances of contracting Lyme disease.
“Typically ticks are dormant in the winter months but it’s not uncommon to see tick bites on a warm February day and now that we’re in December and it’s still warm out, the chance of getting bit still remains,” said Bill Meredith, head of the state’s Mosquito Control Section of DNREC.
Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium borrelia burgdorferi and is transmitted to humans by infected blacklegged ticks (more commonly known as deer ticks).
The most common hosts of the bacteria are mice and deer. When a mouse or deer is bit by an infected tick, the bacteria is stored in its blood and then transmitted to uninfected ticks that bite a deer or mouse serving as a host. Then infected ticks go on to bite humans, infecting them with the bacteria.
“What we have is a never-ending cycle that keeps the bacteria alive,” Mr. Meredith said.
Joseph Parise, D.O. of Bayhealth Family Medicine in Dover said an infected tick needs to be on the skin for at least 24 to 36 hours to transmit the bacteria to a person.
“The most common symptoms are flu-like such as fever, chills, fatigue and swollen glands but these are non-specific,” Dr. Parise said. “But if you’re lucky, you’ll be in the 70 to 80 percent of patients who get the rash which is a tell-tale sign.”
The rash is circular and red and over the course of a few days begins to look like a red bull’s eye.
“So if you’ve been outside or in the woods and see these symptoms, especially the rash, you need to see your doctor for a diagnosis,” Dr. Parise said.
The diagnostic test takes two simple steps — an antibodies test which if positive is followed up with Western Blot Test. If the tests come back positive, antibiotics are used to treat the illness.
“The antibiotics would be used for between two and four weeks. They’re mostly common and inexpensive drugs but unfortunately some people go a long time without knowing they have Lyme disease so there can be more long-term effects,” Dr. Parise said.
Some long-term complications include arthritis (especially in the knees) and Bell’s Palsy. In more serious untreated cases, Lyme carditis, also known as heart block can arise.
“If someone who’s otherwise healthy experiences these and lives in an endemic area like Delaware, it’s never a bad idea to be screened for Lyme disease,” he said.
These conditions can also be treated and infected individuals can return to a healthy lifestyle but unlike other illnesses like chicken pox, no immunity is built against Lyme disease.
“Unfortunately even if it is treated properly, anyone can get Lyme disease again if they’re bit by another infected tick,” Dr. Parise said.
So his best tip for avoiding Lyme disease is to take preventative measures before heading into any area like woods and deep shrubbery where ticks could be hiding.
Precautionary measures include wearing a hat, long sleeves and pants and/or spraying your skin and clothes with a tick repellent. Dr. Parise suggests Deep Woods OFF because it is effective and safe for adults and young children.
Once you get inside after going in the woods, it’s always best to do a full body scan to ensure that there are no ticks.
Mr. Meredith said deer ticks can be very small, especially early in the life cycle so it’s important to be thorough when looking over skin.
If you find a tick on your skin, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the best way to remove it is with fine-tipped tweezers. Grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible and pull upward with steady, even pressure.
If any parts of the tick remain lodged in the skin, the CDC recommends removing it with clean tweezers.
After the entirety of the tick has been removed, thoroughly clean the area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, or antibacterial soap and water.
Live ticks can be disposed of by submersing it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag/container, wrapping it tightly in tape, or flushing it down the toilet. Never crush a tick with your fingers.
Mr. Meredith said as much as 60 to 70 percent of blacklegged ticks in Delaware are infected with the bacteria making Lyme disease more common than other areas of the country.
In 2013, Delaware ranked sixth in number of cases of Lyme disease per capita and in 2014 we were among the top 14 states. According to the CDC, most Lyme disease cases occur in the northeast from Maine to Virginia with the exception of Wisconsin and Minnesota which also see a substantial number of cases.
“There are a lot of factors that go into the high number of cases in our area,” Mr. Meredith said. “The top factors are the climate –– we have the right conditions to keep the bacteria alive, plenty of hosts like deer and mice and of course, the East Coast has a very high population density.”
In response to the consistently high numbers and rates of Lyme disease in Delaware, the government chose to take action through The Lyme Disease Task Force. The Task Force was created from Senate Joint Resolution 10 in 2014 and sponsored by Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth Beach) and Sen. Ernie Lopez (R-Lewes).
The Task Force which includes health care professionals, DNREC officials and residents, unveiled initiatives to fight the illness on Dec. 10.
Initiatives include working with insurance companies to ensure patients have adequate coverage (especially in more complicated cases where the disease remained undiagnosed and prolonged treatment is required), having local colleges and universities research ticks’ biology and ecology and allowing DNREC more authority to address ticks.
As Lyme disease is the most prevalent tick-borne illness in the state, Delaware Health and Social Services will also be on board, working alongside DNREC to form a Lyme disease and prevention/abatement program.
Another important component is to further train medical professionals in diagnosing and treating Lyme disease.