A report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says illnesses from mosquito, tick and flea bites have tripled since 2004. Tick-borne diseases are the biggest threat, accounting for more than 60 percent of cases. In the Midwest, milder winters may be somewhat to blame for the abundance of ticks because climate change can have a major impact on arthropods and the animals they feed on.
“We know that change of even one degree can impact the survival rate of the insects and their population size,” said Sylvia Munoz-Price, MD, an infectious disease specialist with the Froedtert & MCW health network. “I’m not surprised by the CDC’s findings. The warmer the climate, the more of this we can expect and the more important prevention efforts become.”
What is Lyme Disease?
Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne disease in the United States with about 30,000 cases reported each year. Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by Borrelia burgdorferi and possibly Borrelia mayonii, a newly discovered pathogen. Humans come into contact with the bacteria through a tick bite.
People are at risk of contracting other tick-borne diseases such as anaplasmosis (a bacterial infection) and babesiosis (a parasitic infection) from the same ticks. While Lyme disease is the most prevalent, other diseases are catching up.
Which Tick Transmits Lyme Disease?
In Wisconsin, there are at least 16 species of tick, but not all of them transmit disease to humans. Only one type of tick, Ixodes scapularis — commonly known as the deer tick or blacklegged tick — transmits Lyme disease. Contrary to what the tick’s name might imply, deer do not transmit Lyme disease bacteria to ticks, they’re simply a common food source for the ticks. Also, not all of these ticks are capable of spreading Lyme disease, only those that carry the bacteria.
“Ticks become vectors for Lyme disease when they are larvae or nymphs, in their early stages of life,” Dr. Coburn said. “By feeding on small animals such as mice, chipmunks, squirrels or certain birds that are infected, the tick will ingest the bacteria and can transmit them to their next food source.”
Lyme Disease Symptoms
Early Lyme disease symptoms can appear anywhere between three and 30 days after a tick bite.
“The first sign of a Lyme infection is a red, spreading patch on the skin that can sometimes be shaped like a bull’s-eye,” Dr. Coburn said. “It won’t be painful or itchy; it will simply look like a red spot that is at least two and a half inches in diameter and expands day to day.”
Flu-like symptoms may also appear:
- Enlarged lymph nodes
- Muscle aches
It can take several weeks for antibodies to develop against the bacteria. Lab tests can help confirm the diagnosis. If Lyme disease goes undetected and untreated, the disease will continue to progress and symptoms may appear months after the bite.
“Many of these patients are hospitalized because the bacteria can impact the brain, the heart and the nervous system,” Dr. Munoz-Price said.
People may experience severe headaches, memory loss, numbness or tingling (nerve problems) and could develop an irregular heartbeat.
Lyme Disease Treatment
Treatment as soon as symptoms appear is important to prevent complications from the disease. In most early-stage cases, Lyme disease can be treated with oral antibiotics for a period of two to three weeks, and the patient can make a full recovery. With time, it becomes increasingly difficult to fight Lyme disease, though it is still treatable. In more advanced cases, hospitalization and intravenous antibiotics may be necessary.
For a small percentage of people, symptoms such as muscle aches and fatigue can last for more than six months, even after treatment. The cause of these symptoms is not known, and there is no laboratory proof that bacteria are still present. In these cases, studies funded by the National Institutes of Health have shown that extended antibiotic therapy is not helpful.
Protection and Prevention
Taking steps to protect yourself and your family from ticks is the best way to ensure you stay healthy. Peak tick season is when ticks are most active and lasts from May through September.
Ticks should be removed as soon as possible per the CDC’s recommendations, with tweezers and by pulling upward with steady pressure. A plastic card with a v-shaped notch is another handy tool that is commercially available.
Thorough tick checks after spending time in grassy or forested areas are a must. Young ticks can be the size of a poppy seed or smaller.
“Inspect your skin and scalp,” Dr. Munoz-Price said. “If you find a tick biting you, extract it appropriately, photograph it and save it in a bottle because it could provide helpful information to your doctor. Anyone who suffers a tick bite should consult with their primary care provider.”
“Putting the tick(s) in a sealable plastic bag in the freezer is another easy way to preserve them,” Dr. Coburn said. “When checking for ticks, be extremely careful, and look for a tiny, shiny freckle.”
Other Ways to Prevent a Tick Bite
- Use insect repellent containing at least 20 percent diethyltoluamide (commonly known as DEET)
- Use permethrin (an anti-parasitic product) to treat clothes, shoes, camping or hunting gear
- Stay in the center of hiking trails
- Shower as soon as possible after time outdoors
Learn more about our infectious disease services and treatment.
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I don't see that any of the Infectious Disease specialists at Froedtert list "Tick Borne Diseases" as their specialty even tho it is listed on their Infectious Disease Clinic page. You would think in a state known for it's tic population/Lyme Disease, ect. there would be specialists in Milwaukee and SE WI to help those of us who suffer greatly with Lyme Disease.
Hello Shawn – Several of our Infectious Disease providers treat patients with lyme disease. If you would like more information or to schedule an appointment, please call 414-805-3666. Thanks.