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What Makes Ticks Tick? The Facts About Lyme Disease

(Fig West Chester, September 2012)

As a kid, I remember coming in from a long day outside in our wooded backyard and ignoring my mom's usual warning -- "Better check for ticks!" But what's so bad about these little buggers?

Certain ticks carry disease-producing bacteria, Lyme disease, that can hop from their tiny brown bodies to yours if one attaches to your skin. The key is to remove the tick as soon as you spot it, but avoid ticks altogether by taking some trouble-free precautions.

Cover Up

Ticks love thick grasses and heavily wooded areas. So, if you're heading out to explore the great outdoors, wear long sleeves and pants. A hat prevents ticks from falling off tree branches and into your hair -- imagine trying to find a tick the size of a pinhead on YOUR head!

Arm Yourself

Using an insect repellant is important, too. Choose one with 10-30% DEET and spray on your skin and clothing. Different concentrations protect you for different amounts of time; the higher the concentration, the longer you're safe! Try to stay on trails when walking through areas where ticks thrive. Keep fido close by, too -- pets are just as susceptible to Lyme disease as we are.

Check Yourself

If you spend some time where ticks like to hang out, heed my mother's warning by checking your skin and hair for these pests. Showering and using a washcloth should be rough enough to remove any ticks that haven't attached to the skin, but if you do find a tick, here's what to do:

  • Grab a pair of tweezers and pinch the tick near its head/mouth.
  • Don't smash him! Use a steady hand to pull carefully away from the skin.
  • Once the tick is removed, apply some antibacterial cream to the affected area.

Your risk of being infected with Lyme disease is low if the tick is removed within two days. The longer the tick stays stuck to your skin, the higher your risk for Lyme disease.

Okay, so you forgot to wear long pants, left the bug spray at home, and just found a tick on your skin -- and you have no idea how long it's been there. Here are some symptoms that may prompt you to visit the doc:

  • A rash formed in a bull's-eye around the bite . . . a tell-tale sign of Lyme disease.
  • Flu-like symptoms . . . fever, chills, and body aches are big ones.
  • Joint pain . . . soreness in the knees is common, but feeling pain shift from one joint to another can happen, too.

The sooner you visit your doctor, the better -- treatment for Lyme disease works best if done early.

Even though my mom's customary chant got old, she was right. Prevent your risk for Lyme disease by getting those ticks off as soon as you spot them, but call your doc if symptoms pop up.

-- Julie Funk, MS, RD, CDE, LDE

Last Updated: 9/11/2012