The Dangers of Lyme Disease in New England

New England is a hot bed for Lyme disease, so here's how you can avoid ticks to keep yourself healthy.

Tick image via Shutterstock.

Tick image via Shutterstock.

In 2011, 96 percent of Lyme disease cases were found in the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Notice a trend? Lyme disease is most prevalent in New England and along the East Coast. In 2011, almost 2,500 people in Massachusetts were diagnosed with the disease.

“Lyme disease is contracted from the bite of an infected tick,” says Dr. Mark Klempner, a specialist in infectious diseases from the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “Ticks are most active during the months between May and September, and areas like New England are often heavily infected. However, Lyme disease can also be acquired during other months of the year, too, depending on the activity of infected ticks.”

You probably know that you should check your pets for ticks, but the small insects can be incredibly dangerous for humans, too. Ticks, which are the size of a pinhead and have painless bites, live on deer or mice. They can cause Lyme disease, a disease often identified by a “bulls-eye” rash that spreads from the center, or by the low-grade fever, headache, stiff neck, and body aches that accompany that rash. Those symptoms usually appear within 3 to 30 days after a bite from an infected tick, but some people won’t notice symptoms until they start feeling more the serious effects of the bite, like arthritic symptoms, nervous system problems, or the slowing of the heart rate.

“A lot of people don’t know how significant and debilitating Lyme disease can be,” says Susan Neuber, director of the Lyme Center of New England. “The message should be that Lyme disease is not always easily detectable or easily treatable. People often have vague symptoms that we associate with other disorders, but they eventually figure out that they have Lyme disease instead.”

The symptoms of advanced Lyme disease can range from a basic rash to cognitive problems, like memory loss, concentration issues, and brain fog. Some people get numbing, tingling, and burning feelings. Some patients even experience gastrointestinal distress. Neuber says that doctors are quick to diagnose children with ADD, but patients in her clinic have demonstrated struggles with concentration in the classroom because of Lyme disease, not ADD. “I’ve seen numerous patients who have had expensive gastrointestinal workups, too, and the doctors can’t figure out what’s wrong,” she says. “It’s Lyme disease.”

Doctors are sometimes able to diagnose Lyme disease based on blood tests, but clinical assessments seem to be more effective, according to Neuber. “I ask people, do you have animals, are you active outdoors, do you live in an endemic area like New England, do you have symptoms consistent with Lyme, have you ruled out other disorders like arthritis or an autoimmune disease, what does your blood test look like,” she says. “Then I use that to assess risk and likelihood of disease.”

The good news is that Lyme disease can usually be treated with antibiotics. Most practitioners believe that a month of antibiotics will cure Lyme disease, but some believe that patients should continue treatment for as long as they experience symptoms, especially because people with Lyme disease often have other illnesses transmitted from the same ticks that carry Lyme. recently reported on a woman who was diagnosed with a rare bacterial illness and flu-like symptoms, all transmitted through a tick bite. “People who have Lyme often have other parasites or bacterial infections from the tick bite,” says Neuber. “So I believe that it’s important to treat the individual for their symptoms using different medications for the different types of diseases. Still, this can be controversial, even in the literature. There are definitely two schools of thought.” Either way, however, Lyme disease is usually curable, albeit slightly difficult to diagnose.

Why is Lyme disease so prevalent in New England? There is a large deer population here, and deer tend to spread the disease. Plus, Lyme disease is thought to have originated in Lyme, Connecticut long ago. Although time has passed and populations have spread, the disease still tends to be localized near its origin. According to the Lyme Disease Association, Massachusetts remains one of the states most at risk for Lyme disease, and Neuber says that the numbers from the association are even a gross underestimation of the actual count.

“Due to a lack of physician reporting and unrealistically stringent reporting criteria, these numbers are usually incorrect,” she says. “The rule of thumb is to multiply the total count by 10.” If that’s the case, more than 25,000 Massachusetts residents were affected by Lyme in 2011, a number which will likely grow in 2012 and 2013, according to the Lyme Disease Association. New estimates from the CDC this week put annual Lyme infections at 300,000 nationally, 10 times more than previously thought. People who spend time outdoors or at the beach in New England are most likely to be affected, although Neuber says that even people working in their front yards or children playing soccer are at risk for the disease.

Although Lyme disease is more common during the summer months, Christmas trees can carry ticks, too, because deer often rub up against the trees before the trees are taken to lots. To prevent Lyme disease and to avoid other diseases carried by ticks, like Rocky Mountain spotted fever, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends reducing exposure to ticks. Avoid wooded areas, and walk in the center of trails while hiking. Wear bug spray, and examine yourself for ticks after spending time outdoors. Also make sure to check your pets for ticks when they come indoors, and ask your vet to check your pets for ticks, too. Dogs, in particular, are susceptible to tick bites and tick borne diseases.