Wisconsin is prime target for Lyme disease
Article by Patrick D. Sura, MD
Chief Medical Officer and Emergency Medicine Physician
Summer is right around the corner, and we aren’t the only ones ready to get out into the nice weather. Ticks too become active again, and some are more than just an irritation. Some ticks carry illnesses that can be serious, like Lyme disease.
I’ve lived in Wisconsin most of my life and have been a family medicine and emergency physician for more than 30 years. I’ve removed many ticks from patients and have diagnosed early stages of Lyme disease many times. I’ve also seen and treated patients with later, more serious stages of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.
Early in my career, in the late 1980s, Lyme disease in Wisconsin and other states exploded. Wisconsin is especially infested by ticks because we have a great climate and environment for them. Their numbers have also been boosted by our recent, relatively mild winters. And even though we had late-season snow and cold this year, it won’t do much to affect the dense tick population.
Luckily, our ability to diagnose and treat Lyme disease early with antibiotics improved quickly following the late ‘80s outbreaks. And diagnosis and treatment still continues to improve.
What is Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is caused by bacteria. It is an infection that’s spread when ticks carrying Lyme disease bite people or animals.
In the United States, two types of ticks can carry the Lyme disease bacteria:
- Deer ticks. They spread the disease in the Northeast and Midwest. The deer tick is usually quite small, but will vary in size and color. Pictures are easily found online if you are unsure.
- Western black-legged ticks. They spread the disease along the Pacific coast, mostly in northern California and Oregon.
Not all of these types of ticks are infected with Lyme disease. But there’s no way to tell which ones are and which ones aren’t. That means it’s important to seek medical advice if you have a tick attached to you that you can't remove.
If a tick carrying Lyme disease bites you, removing it from your skin in less than 24 to 36 hours decreases risk of getting the illness. Ticks can safely be removed at home and you can see your clinic physician or clinician for evaluation and discussion of any needed treatment. If Lyme disease is not diagnosed and treated, it can cause fatigue, joint pain and even more serious problems down the road.
What are the symptoms of Lyme disease?
A round, red rash is one of the most common signs of Lyme disease. Known as erythema migrans, it spreads at the site of a tick bite and can get very large. Flu-like symptoms are also common. People in the early stages of Lyme disease may feel very tired and have headaches, sore muscles and joints, and a fever.
These symptoms can start at any time, from three days to up to a month after you have been bitten. But some people don't have any symptoms when they are in the early stages of Lyme disease. And they may not even remember getting a tick bite.
Untreated Lyme disease can lead to more serious symptoms over time, including:
- Swelling and joint pain (like arthritis)
- Tingling and numbness in your hands, feet and back
- A lack of energy that does not get better
- Trouble focusing your thoughts
- Poor memory
- Weakness or paralysis in your face muscles
These more serious symptoms can occur weeks, months or even years after a tick bite.
How can Lyme disease be prevented?
Currently, there is no vaccine that can prevent Lyme disease in humans. And that means the best way to prevent it is to protect yourself from ticks:
- Cover up as much skin as you can when you're going to be in wooded or grassy areas. Wear a hat, a long-sleeved shirt and long pants with the legs tucked into your socks. And keep in mind it's easier to see ticks on light-colored clothes.
- Use a bug repellent that has a chemical such as DEET, IR3535, or Picaridin.
- Check your pets for ticks after they've been outside. You can't get Lyme disease from your pet, but your pet can bring infected ticks inside. These ticks can fall off your pet and attach to you.
- Check your clothing and outdoor gear after you have been outside. Remove any ticks you find. Then dry your clothing on high heat for one hour to kill any ticks that might remain.
What should I do if I get bit by a tick?
Remove ticks as soon as you notice them. Infected ticks usually don't spread Lyme disease until they have been attached for at least 36 hours – but I still urge you to be on the lookout for any symptoms of Lyme disease for the next month. Consult your physician if you have concerns, as antibiotics can be prescribed to prevent the possibility of developing Lyme disease. Also be aware that Lyme disease is only one of several tick-borne illnesses that can infect humans.
If you find a tick that’s already embedded itself in your skin, remove it as soon as possible following these steps:
- Before removing the tick, do not paint it with nail polish or other substances; it is most important to remove it quickly.
- Use tweezers to grasp the tick right against the skin surface and pull with a constant steady pressure until it is removed.
- After the tick is removed, clean the skin with alcohol or soap and water.
- If you think the tick has been embedded for more than 24 hours, call your doctor after you remove it. Your doctor may want to prescribe an antibiotic to prevent infection. Keep the tick in a small plastic bag in case you need to show it to your doctor.
How is Lyme disease treated?
The main treatment for Lyme disease is antibiotics. These medicines usually cure Lyme disease within three weeks of starting treatment, especially when the infection is caught early.
Antibiotics can also be used to treat Lyme disease at later stages when more serious symptoms can occur. These symptoms often get better with the antibiotic treatment, but in rare cases they can last the rest of your life.
Enjoy the summer and the outdoors, but be diligent about checking yourself, family members and your pets for ticks. If you have symptoms of Lyme disease or have been recently bitten by a tick, you can get care at:
- Amery Hospital & Clinic
- Clear Lake Clinic
- Luck Clinic
- Turtle Lake Clinic