You may think Lyme disease is old news, but were you aware that it's increasingly recognized as a major public health problem? Each year approximately 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported to the CDC, triple the amount in 1992. The increase is likely due to thriving tick populations (encouraged by changing climate patterns and booming numbers of tick carriers like mice and deer), as well as to a growing awareness of tick-borne diseases. But if every case were diagnosed and reported, the number would be much higher—possibly as high as 300,000 a year, according to two CDC studies.

The reassuring news is that you can take steps to protect yourself and your family from Lyme. Start by getting the facts.

1. Lyme-spreading ticks aren't just in New England.

Lyme cases are concentrated in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, with 14 states accounting for more than 96 percent of reported cases. However, black-legged ticks, which host the bacteria that cause Lyme, appear to be on the move. One study shows the black-legged tick in 45.7 percent of counties in the contiguous U.S. (up from 30 percent in 1996). Combine its range with that of the western black-legged tick and 43 states are on the Lyme map.

2. Staying out of the woods won't keep you in the clear.

Ticks are commonly found in backyards, which means you could be at risk even while gardening, barbecuing, or playing with the kids outside. It helps to keep grass short and to clear tall brush. And if you do live near woods, create a three-foot-wide tick barrier around your lawn with wood chips or gravel.

3. A bull's eye rash isn't the only way to tell you have Lyme disease.

Dartboard circles affect 70 to 80 percent of those who've been bitten by an infected tick. But plenty of people develop the disease without ever spotting a rash. That's why you should know the signs of Lyme: flulike symptoms including fever, chills, headache, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, and muscle and joint aches. If untreated, the bacteria can cause neurological issues resulting in neck stiffness, facial palsy, an irregular heartbeat, shooting pains, and numbness, as well as problems with speech and short-term memory. A doctor can do a test called the ELISA, which detects antibodies against the bacteria, and can confirm a diagnosis with a Western blot test.

4. The sooner you react to a tick, the better.

If you're bitten by a black-legged tick that carries Lyme, it usually takes from 36 to 48 hours for the bacteria to be transferred to your bloodstream. "The faster you get ticks off you, the better your chance of not contracting Lyme," explains Heather Hearst, founder of Project Lyme, an organization that raises awareness about Lyme prevention and early diagnosis. Make tick checks part of your post-outdoor routine (see tips below).

5. There's only one good way to remove a tick from your skin.

Always use a pair of fine-tip tweezers to grasp the tick close to your skin. Then pull straight up with gentle, steady pressure. Don't crush the offending arachnid—flush it down the toilet. Pull out any remaining pieces, then clean the area as well as your hands with rubbing alcohol.


After spending time outdoors, scan your body for poppy- to sesame-seed-size specks. Then closely examine your head and hair, in and around your ears, under your arms, inside your belly button, behind your knees, between your legs, and around your waist. Take a shower; doing so within two hours can wash away ticks before they can transmit Lyme-causing bacteria.

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