prevention lyme disease

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Lyme Disease Prevention

Avoidance of Ticks. At present, the best way to avoid Lyme disease is to avoid deer ticks. Although generally only about one percent of all deer ticks are infected with the Lyme disease bacterium, in some areas more than half of them harbor the microbe.

Most people with Lyme disease become infected during the summer, when immature ticks are most prevalent. Except in warm climates, few people are bitten by deer ticks during winter months.

Deer ticks are most often found in wooded areas and nearby shady grasslands, and are especially common where the two areas merge. Because the adult ticks feed on deer, areas where deer are frequently seen are likely to harbor sizable numbers of deer ticks.

To help prevent tick bites, people entering tick-infested areas should walk in the center of trails to avoid picking up ticks from overhanging grass and brush.

To minimize skin exposure to ticks, people outdoors in tick-infested areas should wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts that fit tightly at the ankles and wrists. As a further safeguard, people should wear a hat, tuck pant legs into socks, and wear shoes that leave no part of the feet exposed. To make it easy to detect ticks, people should wear light-colored clothing.

To repel ticks, people can spray their clothing with the insecticide permethrin, which is commonly found in lawn and garden stores. Insect repellents that contain a chemical called DEET (N,N-diethyl-M-toluamide) can also be applied to clothing or directly onto skin. Although highly effective, these repellents can cause some serious side effects, particularly when high concentrations are used repeatedly on the skin. Infants and children may be especially at risk for adverse reactions to DEET.

Pregnant women should be especially careful to avoid ticks in Lyme disease areas because the infection can be transferred to the unborn child. Although rare, such a prenatal infection may make the woman more likely to miscarry or deliver a stillborn baby.

Checking for Ticks. Once indoors, people should check themselves and their children for ticks, particularly in the hairy regions of the body. The immature deer ticks that are most likely to cause Lyme disease are only about the size of a poppy seed, so they are easily mistaken for a freckle or a speck of dirt. All clothing should be washed. Pets should be checked for ticks before entering the house, because they, too, can develop symptoms of Lyme disease. In addition, a pet can carry ticks into the house. These ticks could fall off without biting the animal and subsequently attach to and bite people inside the house.

If a tick is discovered attached to the skin, it should be pulled out gently with tweezers, taking care not to squeeze the tick's body. An antiseptic should then be applied to the bite. Studies by NIH-supported researchers suggest that a tick must be attached for at least 48 hours to transmit the Lyme disease bacterium, so prompt tick removal could prevent the disease.

The risk of developing Lyme disease from a tick bite is small, even in heavily infested areas, and most physicians prefer not to treat patients bitten by ticks with antibiotics unless they develop symptoms of Lyme disease.

Vaccine Development. Because Lyme disease is difficult to diagnose and sometimes does not respond to treatment, researchers are trying to create a vaccine that will protect people from the disorder. Vaccines work in part by prompting the body to generate antibodies. These custom-shaped molecules lock onto specific proteins made by a virus or bacterium-often those proteins lodged in the microbe's outer coat. Once antibodies attach to an invading microbe, other immune defenses are evoked to destroy it.

Development of an effective vaccine for Lyme disease has been difficult for a number of reasons. Scientists need to find out how the immune system protects against the bacterium. However, a vaccine based on the outer surface protein A (OspA) of the Lyme bacterium has been tested in people living in the northeastern United States, and preliminary results are encouraging.

Tips for Personal Protection
  • Avoid tick-infested areas, especially in May, June, and July.*
  • Wear light-colored clothing so that ticks can be easily spotted.
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and closed shoes and socks.
  • Tuck pant legs into socks or boots and tuck shirt into pants.
  • Apply insect repellent containing permethrin to pants, socks, and shoes, and compounds containing DEET on exposed skin. Do not overuse these products.
  • Walk in the center of trails to avoid overgrown grass and brush.
  • After being outdoors in a tick-infested area, remove, wash, and dry clothing.
  • Inspect the body thoroughly and remove carefully any attached ticks.
  • Check pets for ticks.
* Local health departments and park or agricultural extension services may have information on the seasonal and geographic distribution of ticks in your area. How to Remove a Tick
  • Tug gently but firmly with blunt tweezers near the "head" of the tick until it releases its hold on the skin.
  • To lessen the chance of contact with the bacterium, try not to crush the tick's body or handle the tick with bare fingers.
  • Swab the bite area thoroughly with an antiseptic to prevent bacterial infection.

Tick Eradication. In the meantime, researchers are trying to develop an effective strategy for ridding areas of deer ticks. Studies show that spraying of pesticide in wooded areas in the spring and fall can substantially reduce for more than a year the number of adult deer ticks residing there. Spraying on a large scale, however, may not be economically feasible and may prompt environmental or health concerns.

Scientists are also pursuing biological control of deer ticks by introducing tiny stingerless wasps, which feed on immature ticks, into tick-infested areas. Researchers are currently assessing the effectiveness of this technique.

Successful control of deer ticks will probably depend on a combination of tactics. More studies are needed before wide-scale tick control strategies can be implemented.

References and Sources: Medline, Pubmed, National Institutes of Health

last update: December 2008

This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. You should not use this material to diagnose or treat a health condition or disease without consulting with your healthcare provider.
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