May 9, 2013
Jennifer Miller, 608-266-1683

Wisconsin Prepares for Another Active Season of Tickborne Disease

May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month; State Officials Urge Precautions

MADISON-Wisconsin's warm spring weather will mean more blacklegged tick activity, and state officials are urging people to take precautions against tick bites when spending time outdoors. Infected blacklegged ticks (also known as deer ticks) carry pathogens that cause Lyme disease and other tickborne diseases.

Reported cases of Lyme disease and other tickborne diseases have been increasing in Wisconsin over the past 10 years, according to Dr. Henry Anderson, State Health Officer. The annual average of 3,250 confirmed and probable cases of Lyme disease reported in Wisconsin during the period 2008 to 2011 was six times higher than the annual average of 536 reported cases during the period 1997 to 1999. Reports of other tickborne diseases to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services have also increased substantially during recent years.

"People should take precautions to prevent tick bites when they spend time outdoors. The risk of acquiring a tickborne illness is highest from spring through summer when the ticks are most active. The key to prevent tickborne diseases is to avoid tick bites and to find and remove ticks promptly," Anderson noted.

Anderson also emphasized the importance of recognizing and treating tickborne diseases early to reduce complications. "People of all ages can become ill with tickborne diseases. Contact your health care provider immediately if you suspect that you may have a tickborne illness," Anderson advised.

Lyme disease, a bacterial disease, is the state's most frequently reported tickborne illness. Signs and symptoms may occur 3 days to 30 days after the bite of an infected tick and may include a characteristic rash called erythema migrans (EM), fever and chills, fatigue, headache, muscle and joint pain, and swollen lymph nodes. The rash is typically circular and red initially and expands over several days, although it may not occur in all cases. When detected early, Lyme disease is easily treated with antibiotics. If left untreated, Lyme disease can result in debilitating arthritis, and serious heart and nervous system complications.

Other tickborne diseases diagnosed in Wisconsin include the bacterial diseases anaplasmosis and ehrlichiosis, the parasitic disease babesiosis, and Powassan virus disease. Signs and symptoms of these illnesses can range from mild to severe. Persons who become ill may experience fever, chills, sweats, muscle aches, joint pain, headache, fatigue, nausea and vomiting, and loss of appetite. Severe illnesses can include a change in mental status, paralysis and coma, and can be fatal. Anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis, and babesiosis are treatable with antibiotics. There is no antibiotic or antiviral treatment for Powassan virus infection.

The following steps can help prevent tick bites and reduce the chance of getting tickborne diseases:

  • Avoid wooded and brushy areas with high grass and leaf litter because ticks prefer these areas. Stay to the center of a trail to avoid contact with grass and brush.
  • Use effective tick repellents and apply according to the label instructions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends using repellents with 20% DEET on exposed skin and clothing to prevent tick bites. Adults should apply repellents to children, taking special care to avoid spraying in the hands, eyes, and mouth. Repellents that contain permethrin can also be applied to clothing.
  • Wear clothes that will help shield you from ticks. Long-sleeved shirts and long pants are best. Tuck pants into the top of socks or boots, to create a "tick barrier." Light-colored clothing makes ticks easier to spot.
  • Check your body frequently for ticks, and remove them promptly. Blacklegged ticks are small and may be difficult to find, so careful and thorough tick checks must be done on all parts of the body. It is important to pay special attention to areas where ticks tend to hide, such as the head, scalp, and body folds (armpit, behind the knee, groin). Take a shower or a bath as soon as possible to remove any ticks that may still be crawling on you.
  • Remove attached ticks slowly and gently, using a pair of thin-bladed tweezers applied as close to the skin as possible. Folk remedies like petroleum jelly, nail polish remover, or burning matches are not safe or effective ways to remove ticks.
  • Protect your pets from tick bites by checking your dog or cat for ticks before allowing them inside. While a vaccine may prevent Lyme disease in pets, it will not stop the animal from carrying infected ticks into the home. Speak to your veterinarian about topical tick repellants available for pets.
  • Landscape homes and recreational areas to reduce the number of ticks and create tick-safe zones by using woodchips or gravel along the border between lawn and wooded area. Continue to remove leaf litter and clear tall grass and brush around houses throughout the summer.

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For information on insect repellents: