Tick Season in New England: What to Know About Lyme Disease

BIDMC Contributor

MAY 17, 2018

Early spring is the start of tick season in New England. Regardless of whether you spend your weekends in the garden, coaching little league or walking your dog in the park, it’s important to learn about ticks so that you can protect yourself from the diseases they carry — including Lyme disease.

In the eastern U.S., Lyme disease is spread by blacklegged ticks — not all ticks spread Lyme. “These ticks like to feed on birds, mice, deer and humans,” says Graham Snyder, MD, a physician in the Division of Infectious Disease at BIDMC. “You can find ticks wherever you find these animals and their habitats, such as shrubs and tall grasses. Ticks wait until an animal or person brushes up against the vegetation, giving them a chance to latch on.”

Knowing when a tick has latched on can be difficult, especially in the spring and early summer when blacklegged ticks are tiny, smaller than the size of a poppy seed. Adult ticks — larger in size and darker in color — are active in the late summer, fall and even in mild winters.

A tick can pass on Lyme after it has been attached for at least 24 hours. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 300,000 Americans are diagnosed with Lyme disease each year.

“It’s good to know that Lyme disease cannot be passed from person-to-person or from your pet to you,” Snyder says. “But if you’ve been outside and you think you may have contracted Lyme disease, call your doctor.”

Lyme disease typically starts off as a red bull's eye-shaped rash, but that’s not always the case. “While the rash is a helpful indicator of the disease, around 30 percent of people who get Lyme disease never get that rash,” Snyder says. “Fever, headache, fatigue and achiness are common symptoms within the first month after the tick bite.”

Early diagnosis is important. “In some cases, a blood test may help confirm a Lyme diagnosis. If you do have Lyme disease, antibiotic treatment is very likely to cure the infection,” Snyder says.

The later stages of Lyme disease may result in meningitis, arthritis, facial palsy, an irregular heartbeat, nerve pain or numbness in the hands and feet or problems with short-term memory.

Although there is currently no Lyme disease vaccine on the market, Snyder says there are a lot of safe and effective ways to prevent tick bites. Here are a few tips:

  • Do daily tick checks when you’ve been outdoors.
  • Wear light colored clothes when you’re in tick habitats to help spot ticks more easily.
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants to cover your skin.
  • Walk in the center of trails and avoid resting under trees.
  • Clear away brush and maintain grassy areas in your yard.
  • Use repellants with DEET, 20% or more, making sure to follow safe use for insect repellents.
  • Periodically soak or spray your clothes in permethrin.

What to Do if You Find a Tick

If you do find a tick on you, take the time to remove it the right way. Don’t pick it off with your fingers, because this can squeeze the tick and force bacteria into your body. It’s best to remove ticks with tweezers or a thin flat object you can place under its mouth to gently lift it away from your skin. Wash the bite area with soap and water and apply an antiseptic to the bite. In some cases it can be helpful to save the tick in a small plastic bag so it can be tested, but your symptoms will make for a more accurate diagnosis.

If you find a tick attached to your skin or think you have symptoms due to ticks, make sure to see your doctor right away.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.