Taking the Bite out of Lyme Disease

Preventing Tick Bites, Early Treatment Reduces Risk

From the WebMD Archives

June 11, 2003 -- In less than 20 years, Lyme disease has grown from only about 500 cases in isolated areas of the U.S. in 1982 to more than 17,000 cases nationwide in 2001. It's now the most common disease spread by insects in the country.

But a new report in this week's New England Journal of Medicine suggests that education and simple prevention strategies like reducing the risk of tick bites, checking for attached ticks, and prompt antibiotic treatment for existing bites in adults may be the most effective ways to stop the spread of Lyme disease.

Lyme disease is spread through ticks that carry the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi. It may be transmitted to humans when an infected tick bites a human and remains attached to the skin for more than 36 hours. Symptoms of Lyme disease, such as a skin rash, body aches, or a mild fever, usually develop within one to four weeks after infection.

Although Lyme disease is rarely fatal, researchers say infection should be treated promptly with antibiotics. Otherwise, serious long-term complications such as loss of movement, memory loss, joint pain, and skin problems may occur and some complications may be resistant to treatment.

Lyme Disease Prevention Strategies

Researchers Edward Hayes, MD, and Josephs Piesman, D.Sc, of the CDC, say the easiest way to reduce the risk of Lyme disease is to avoid tick bites in the first place.

Not all ticks carry Lyme disease. In North America ticks that feed on deer (deer ticks) are the most common type of tick associated with Lyme disease in the Northeast and Midwest. On the Pacific coast, another type of tick, known as the western black-legged tick, can also carry the disease.

To avoid potentially dangerous tick bites, researchers recommend:

  • Avoiding tick-infested areas, such as forests where deer are found.
  • Using bug repellents on skin and clothing.
  • Wearing protective clothing that covers exposed skin and tucking pants into socks when walking in wooded areas.
  • Checking skin regularly for ticks after being outdoors and promptly removing any ticks attached to the skin.


The report says another way to reduce the risk of tick bites and Lyme disease is to reduce the number of ticks in residential areas by implementing one or more of the following tick control measures:

  • Applying insecticides to tick-infested habitats once or twice a year.
  • Making yards less attractive to ticks by removing leaf litter and creating dry barriers such as wood chips between lawns and forests or dense vegetation.
  • Consider using bait boxes to kill tick-carrying rodents.
  • Consider excluding or removing deer.

Researchers say the risk of serious complications from Lyme disease may also be reduced through preventive treatment with antibiotics within 72 hours after a suspicious tick bites -- if the tick was attached for at least 36 hours, but not less than 36 hours. In children, the safety and effectiveness of treatment has not been evaluated.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on June 11, 2003


SOURCES: The New England Journal of Medicine, June 12, 2003. WebMD Medical Reference with Healthwise: "Lyme Disease."

© 2003 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.