Lyme disease has become one of the fastest growing epidemics in the nation. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, there are more than 329,000 new cases in the U.S. each year. But getting the facts about Lyme disease isn’t always easy.
Here are some of the biggest “myths” about the illness—and the information you need to protect yourself, your family and pets from tick bites so you can safely enjoy the outdoors.
Myth #1: Lyme always causes a bulls-eye rash.
FACT: Although most people associate Lyme disease with the bulls-eye-shaped “erythema migrans” (EM) rash, less than 50 percent of patients develop one. Early stage Lyme may manifest as a mild flu-like illness with a headache, a stiff neck, or a rash that’s so pale or oddly positioned that it’s barely noticeable. If you get a rash, it’s just as likely to look like a simple rash that is easily mistaken for a skin infection or spider bite.
Myth #2: Lyme is an East Coast illness only.
FACT: Although it’s more prevalent in the Northeast and Midwest, Lyme disease has been reported in all 50 states and is a problem around the globe. It is endemic in parts of Europe and Asia, Australia and Canada, and is even found in the Amazon region of Brazil.
Myth #3: You’ll know when you’ve been bitten by a tick.
FACT: Ticks have a numbing agent in their saliva so you don’t feel anything when one first bites you. You probably won’t even know a tick is feeding. Most people don’t ever recall seeing a tick latched onto them.
Myth #4: Ticks die in winter.
FACT: Many people believe that ticks die in winter, but that’s not true. Temperatures have to drop below 10 degrees Fahrenheit for a long time in order for ticks to start dying, and thanks to climate change that’s not the reality even in the northern states anymore. Although this past February was the coldest month on record for many Northeast and Midwest areas, the heavy snows paradoxically provided a layer of insulation for blacklegged ticks that are now questing for blood as the weather warms up.
Myth #5: You have to be near deer to be exposed to deer ticks.
FACT: If you don’t see any deer and think the coast is clear, think again. Blacklegged ticks (commonly called deer ticks) carry the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. They feed on small mice, chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, birds, deer, and even on dogs and cats.
Myth #6: Ticks fall from trees.
FACT: Ticks don’t jump, fly, or drop from trees. They crawl up. If you discover a tick on your head or back, it’s probably because it latched onto your foot or leg and crawled up your body and not because it fell off a tree branch. Minimize your exposure by tucking pant legs into socks and shoes, wear long-sleeved shirts, and tuck your shirt into pants to keep ticks on the outside of clothing.
Myth #7: Hiking and camping are the most common ways to catch a tick-borne disease.
FACT: It’s important to make tick bite prevention an important part of your outdoor plans whether you are gardening, camping, hiking, biking, or just playing outdoors. Although black-legged ticks live in moist and humid environments, particularly in or near grassy or wooded areas, they will cling to brush and shrubs and live in lawns and gardens, especially at the edges of woods and around old stone walls.
Myth #8: If the blood test is negative, you don’t have Lyme.
FACT: Tests for detecting Lyme disease are often inaccurate. At present, your doctor will probably recommend two-tiered blood testing requiring a positive ELISA test result. Doctors commonly order an ELISA first to screen for the disease, then confirm it with a Western Blot. The ELISA measures the total amount of antibodies produced by the body in response to the Lyme bacterium (Borrelia burgdorferi). However, it may miss over half of Lyme cases because antibodies may not be high enough yet to detect, giving a false-negative result.
Myth #9: Antibiotics cure everyone within two to three weeks.
FACT: Studies show that as many as 20 percent of patients continue to exhibit symptoms even after they complete antibiotic treatment. What’s more, many of these individuals turn out to have co-infections transmitted by the same ticks that gave them Lyme. These co-infections don’t always respond to treatments for Lyme disease itself.
Myth #10: You can remove a tick with a match or by painting it with nail polish
FACT: Forget any advice you’ve heard about holding a match to the end of a tick, swabbing it with nail polish or suffocating it with petroleum jelly. You want to remove an embedded tick from your body. The easiest and safest way is to pull it gently out with tweezers. Grasp the tick close to its head, then slowly lift it away from the skin. Don’t twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouth parts to break off and remain in the skin.