Lyme Disease & Babesiosis: Dangerous Tick Borne Diseases

After a walk in the woods, check for ticks before getting in the car!

If you spend any amount of time outdoors on the North Shore, you should be aware of ticks, where they live, how they feed and what to do if you find a tick on your body or biting into your skin. Prevention and immediate action are paramount tactics in keeping yourself, your pets and your family safe from serious infection.

Ticks are arachnids that are closely related to spiders. They feed by attaching themselves to animals and sucking blood. Ticks on the North Shore primarily transmit two dangerous infections - Lyme Disease and Babesiosis (a blood parasite commonly confused with malaria). Some tick populations in New England can transmit other, more rare diseases like Anaplasmosis bacteria and Powassan virus.

Ticks live in the woods and in grassy fields, but they can also survive in and around your home.  They are capable of surviving in varied environments as long as their main source of food - blood - is available. In the world of disease control, ticks are known as 'vectors' - an entity that transmits disease from one host to the next through their behavior.  Ticks, like mosquitos, transmit disease through feeding.

Deer tick life stages and relative sizes - adult, nymph, and larva

Lyme Disease

The most dangerous disease transmitted by ticks on the North Shore is Lyme Disease.  Infected deer ticks bite humans and transmit the disease while feeding.  Symptoms appear in the form of fatigue, fever, headache, muscle & joint aches, swollen lymph nodesErythyma migransas rash as it would appear in a Lyme Disease infection. and a bulls-eye shaped rash called erythema migrans. Lyme disease is a serious condition that can cause permanent bodily harm if left untreated.  Infection can spread to joints, the nervous system and the heart.

Infection can only be verified by a blood test. While clinical diagnosis is useful, the only way to be 100% sure that you've been infected is through a blood test. If caught early, a treatment of antibiotics usually results in complete recovery. Drugs commonly used to treat Lyme Disease include doxycycline, amoxicillin, or cefuroxime axetil. People with certain neurological or cardiac illness may require more intense intravenous treatment with drugs such as ceftriaxone or penicillin.

Babesiosis

Babesiosis is a parasitic infection that attacks red blood cells. Its passed primarily by younger ticks in their nymphal stage of growth.  These ticks are hard to see and are about the size of a poppy seed. Babesia infection ranges in severity from asymptomatic (no symptoms) to life-threatening. Symptoms are flu-like, and include chill, fever, headache, sweats, body aches, fatigue, nausea and loss of appetite. Babesiosis can cause a type of anemia called hemolytic anemia, which can result in jaundice and dark urine. Infection can also cause low or unstable blood pressure, low platelet count, blood clots and bleeding, and malfunction of vital organs (heart, liver, lungs or kidneys) resulting in death.

Symptoms should be a clear signal for a blood test where samples are examined for the presence of the parasite in the actual blood cell.  Any diagnostics should be confirmed by a reference laboratory because Babesia can be confused with similar diseases like malaria. 

Most people who show no symptoms probably won't require treatment, but those who do respond well to combined drug therapies that last 7 to 10 days. Treatment combinations are usually atovaquone & azithromycin, or clindamycin & quinine for severe cases.  Additional treatment may be required to treat the symptoms of infection and may include blood transfusions, mechanical ventilation, and dialysis.

Prevention

Like Poison Ivy, the best prevention of tick-borne disease is avoiding contact. This can be hard especially in the summer when we all spend more time out doors - at the beach, in the woods, out in the yard or at the park. There are strategies that can reduce your chances of exposure while you still enjoy the outdoors:

  • Walk in the center of trails
  • Wear shirts with long sleeves and pants when in the woods.
  • Use a bug spray with DEET on exposed skin.
  • Use a bug spray with permethrin on clothing, shoes and out door equipment.
  • Inspect yourself, your kids, your pets and your gear.
    • Try to do this on site before entering your vehicle.
      • A tick can live in a car if it has people to feed on.
    • Shower ASAP - within two hours is best practice.
    • Conduct a full-body tick check using mirrors to view all parts after being in a tick infested habitat.
    • Checking children should be thorough:
      • most importantly hair
      • under arms
      • in and around ears and nostrils
      • inside the belly button
      • behind knees
      • between legs
      • around waistband
    • Examine gear and pets
      • Ticks can hitch a ride into your house on your dog, in your tent or on your backback and bite somebody when they're home!
      • Clothes should be laundered and dried in a drier to kill any remaining ticks.
        • A hot drier does more to kill ticks than a washing machine. Ticks can live through a wash cycle, but not a dryer cycle.

I frequently take my dog into the woods, and I consistently brush him with a styling brush that has stiff bristles at the end of our walk before getting in the car. This seems to be very effective in keeping the ticks from hitching a ride home. Other effective techniques are using rubber-palmed cloth gloves to rub down his entire body, or even a beach towel for a vigorous rub down.

Removing a Tick

If you find a tick crawling on your body simply remove the tick and destroy it.  A shot glass of listerine will do the trick - just drop it in. If a tick has burrowed in to your skin, you should remove it immediatley with tweezers:

  • Use fine tipped tweezers
  • Grasp the tick as close to the surface of the skin as possible
  • Pull upward with steady pressure until the tick releases.
    • Twisting and erratic movement will cause the head or mouth parts of the tick to break of and become embedded in your skin.
      • Embedded tick parts should be removed with tweezers and the wound should be cleaned with Hydrogen Peroxide
  • Clean the bite area, your hands and your tweezers with alcohol, or plenty of soap and hot water.
  • Follow Up and Be Vigilant!
    • Make a note in your calendar of your tick bite, and where you may have picked up the tick.
    • If you develop symptoms for Lyme Disease or Babesiosis seek treatment immediately from a qualified health care provider.

DO NOT follow folk remedies for tick removal like using petroleum jelly or nail polish to smother the tick, or using a cigarette or lit match to burn the tick off.  You want to remove the whole, live tick as soon as possible.

Disclaimer: We are not medical professionals.  The information in this article is the result of research from the National Institutes of Health, the CDC and the WHO, and the Mass Burea of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences | Department of Public Health. When in doubt consult a qualified health care provider. Tick-borne diseases are serious medical conditions that are fatal under some circumstances if left untreated.  If you develop symptoms described above, seek professional medical help.

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