By Indu Gupta, MD, MPH, Commissioner of Health and
Anna Amaya, RN, Public Health Nurse, Bureau of Disease Control
During the cold winter month of February, I was driving with Anna to attend a Lyme disease conference in Albany, NY. We were sharing life experiences, including our experiences with Lyme disease. She told me how she learned about the disease during her first week on the job here at the Health Department.
“On my first day at work as a communicable disease nurse for the Onondaga County Health Department, I inquired about Lyme disease. As a Texan, I was not familiar with Lyme disease. I knew people in the northern states should avoid walking in brush where ticks live and I knew Lyme disease was also common in Connecticut. I also knew it was feared because it made people very ill, so I inquired into the nature of this disease.
My nursing supervisor informed me that Lyme disease was prevalent in Onondaga County and I was given a good amount of information to read. She instructed me on what to do if I found a tick attached to me: remove the tick with pointed tweezers, apply alcohol, and cover the site with an antiseptic ointment and a Band-Aid. There was much discussion about using pointed tweezers as opposed to flat tweezers and the importance of checking your body thoroughly after you have been outdoors walking in brush.
Much to my surprise, this information proved to be priceless. That very day my seven-year-old son had been playing in his clubhouse with his brother. The clubhouse was located in the woods behind our townhouse. The clubhouse was in a beautiful tree surrounded by various treasures the boys and their friends had found in the woods. He was outside that day for only a brief time before coming inside to eat his dinner, followed by a shower. After his shower, I noticed a black spot on his chest that did not come off. It was a tick! Armed with the information that I had received that day, I was able to properly remove it.
My son had been outside for a mere 15 minutes but that short period of time is all that it took for a tick to find him. If it had remained attached for days, he could have become ill with Lyme disease. He never developed symptoms because of what I learned that day. I will never forget that day and I am grateful that I knew what to do when faced with an attached tick”.
Anna’s story reminds me of the arrival of spring…and ticks! Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi. Deer ticks carry this bacteria. These ticks cannot fly or jump. But when a host- such as a deer, cat, dog, or human-brushes the tip of the grass or shrub, the infected tick quickly climbs and bites into the skin and attaches. In humans, a tick must be attached for 36 or more hours to transmit the infection. In the beginning Lyme disease can present as rash, and if left untreated can cause joint, nervous system, and heart problems. All of these can result in life-long health issues.
I have seen it firsthand. Several years ago, I met a middle-aged man, who was admitted to the hospital with neurological complications of Lyme disease. I took care of him as a medical resident in New Jersey. When I last saw him, he was still quite disabled. My ward rotation ended and I went to other areas of training. I never saw him again but I often wonder today, how much was he able to recover? Life changed for him forever.
Years have passed and now I see Lyme disease in Onondaga County. We know that Lyme disease has become quite common in 14 northeastern states and also the upper Midwest of the US. A lot of health information is out there now, and I am keenly aware of the constant, unfiltered information without any checks or balances from print and digital media 24/7, 365 days a year. What I see at times causes confusion and stress. So my simple suggestion is- enjoy our beautiful spring and summer in CNY by participating in outdoor activities. We should find a good balance between fear and being carefree.
The great news is that we can prevent Lyme disease taking hold of us! How? First take steps to keep those deer ticks away by:
- taking care of your yard;
- keeping the deer away;
- using insect repellents;
- wearing light colored clothes when hiking;
- checking your entire body for any ticks after coming inside the house;
- and the to-do list goes on!
Secondly, if you find a tick, DO NOT PANIC! Pause, compose yourself, and find a pair of tweezers to remove it carefully. After this, keep an eye on the bite site for 30 days. Finally, you should consult your health care provider for any questions you may have regarding symptoms, testing, and treatment.
As a final note, spring is here. I am planning to spend a lot of time outdoors whenever I can, walking and biking. I am planning and preparing for prevention. I hope you do, too, because prevention is better than cure!
OCHD: Lyme disease: http://www.ongov.net/health/lyme.html
NYSDOH: Tick and Lyme disease: https://www.health.ny.gov/diseases/communicable/lyme/
CDC: Lyme disease: http://www.cdc.gov/lyme/