Since the first cluster of cases was recognized around Lyme, Connecticut, in 1975, Lyme disease has been spreading further west and south with each passing year.

Prevent Lyme Disease

  • Avoid areas with lots of ticks – wooded and bushy areas with high grass and leaf litter.
  • Be particularly careful in May, June and July when ticks are most active.
  • Use insect repellant with 20 to 30 percent DEET on adult skin and clothing. It is available at drug, grocery and discount stores. Follow directions for use on the label.
  • Permethrin is also effective but should not be applied directly to skin. Apply to pants, socks and shoes; it will remain effective through several washings. It also will kill ticks on contact. It is available at outdoor equipment stores.  Follow directions for use on the label.
  • Wear long pants, long sleeves and long socks to keep ticks off your skin. Light-colored clothing makes it easier to spot ticks. Tucking pant legs into socks or boots will help keep ticks on the outside of clothing.
  • Remove ticks from clothing before going indoors. To kill any that may be missed, wash clothes in hot water and dry in high heat.
  • Perform daily body checks, including armpits, scalp and groin. Remove ticks immediately with fine-tipped tweezers. Pull up directly but gently and remove the entire tick. If any remains, consult a doctor.

“The prevalence of Lyme disease is increasing along both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “Laborers, especially those working in road construction and repair, need to take precautions.

Between 2006 and 2007 – the last years for which data are available – reported cases in Virginia and Maryland more than doubled. Meanwhile, Lyme disease cases are becoming more common across Canada, New England, the northern Midwest and the Pacific coast.

Caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, the disease can be cured quickly with antibiotics. However, if treatment is delayed, the disease often cures slowly, even with antibiotics. If left untreated, it can become painful and take months, even years, to resolve.

The bacteria are carried by ticks that have a two-year life cycle. As larvae, they survive on field mice, then drop off into the grass from which they latch onto animals or people that brush by. Deer are unaffected by the disease but carry the ticks to distant locations.  Deer invasions of suburban areas in recent years have brought the ticks closer to human targets. If the ticks jump onto a human, their bites will infect.

Summer is the peak season for tick bites. Prevention involves covering up to minimize the possibility of ticks attaching to the skin (see sidebar). Laborers on road crews, particularly near wooded areas, are vulnerable. Also, those who work as groundskeepers or along railroads should take precautions. Off the job, yard work, pet care and outdoor activities like golf, hunting and camping increase the risk of tick exposure. After a day outdoors in any of these situations, adults should check themselves and their children for the presence of ticks.

When found, ticks should be removed with fine-tipped tweezers and the area cleansed with an antiseptic. Nail polish, petroleum jelly or matches should not be used. After the tick is removed, the area should be watched closely to be sure no signs of the disease develop. If the tick is attached for less than 24 hours, the chance of getting the disease is small.

Symptoms may include fatigue, chills, fever, headache, muscle and joint aches and swollen lymph nodes. In three out of four victims, a distinguishing, circular rash develops around the site of the bite after a delay of three to 30 days. The center often clears, giving a bull’s eye appearance.

If symptoms develop, contact a doctor immediately. Among some patients and medical professionals, a concern is rising that doctors sometimes fail to recognize symptoms as Lyme disease-related – perhaps because they are similar to flu and some other illnesses – if they are not closely associated with a known tick bite. The problem is aggravated by shortcomings in the test for the disease, an older procedure which produces many inconsistent results. Due to these issues in diagnosis, treatment controversies sometimes develop as well, particularly in chronic cases. Canadians may want to consult CanLyme, the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation, for more information. In addition, a three-part series on the medical debate, prepared by ABC Channel 7 News of the Washington, DC area, is on YouTube.

About 20,000 new cases of Lyme disease are reported each year in the United States, and the highest rates occur in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Wisconsin.

More information about the disease is available at Family Doctor (also in Spanish), the Centers for Disease Control and the Mayo Clinic.

[Steve Clark]