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Uptick: Lyme Disease, Other Illnesses on the Rise

Last updated: July 8, 2024

Wisconsin provides some of the best outdoor recreation anywhere. Each summer, many people look forward to spending time hiking, camping, and exploring the state’s beautiful natural areas.

The outdoors, however, also unfortunately contain some hidden eight-legged dangers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that tick-borne illnesses are on the rise, more than doubling in recent years.

The CDC suggests several reasons for the increase in illnesses. Those include suburban development into areas where ticks are prevalent and changing climate patterns that cause ticks or their hosts — such as rodents or deer — to move into new areas.

Wisconsin at High Risk

Unfortunately, Wisconsin is one of those states with the highest number of Lyme disease cases each year. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported more than 5,300 incidents of the disease in 2022. Ticks typically are most active between May and November. Climate change and warming temperatures are leading seasons to become longer.

Counties in the central and northern parts of the state are particularly susceptible. Deer ticks have increasingly spread into those areas during the past 30 years, the agency said.

Types of Ticks

The deer tick — also known as the black-legged tick — is the type that carries the bacteria that can cause Lyme disease. They’re tiny, reaching only about 3 millimeters in size at adulthood.

Wood ticks, also common in Wisconsin, are generally larger in size, and may have some whitish markings. Deer ticks, on the other hand, may have a reddish or brownish U-shaped marking. Wood ticks also can carry disease, but deer ticks are the primary carrier of the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.

Lyme disease isn’t the only risk. Other tick-borne illnesses include babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, anaplasmosis, Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness, Tick-Borne Relapsing Fever, and tularemia, according to the CDC.

Avoiding Tick-borne Illness

“The good news is that you can take some easy steps you to avoid tick bites in the first place,” says Dr. Robert Sedlacek, a Family Medicine Physician with Physicians-Waupaca.

A good first step is knowing where ticks might be. People may think of the woods as the most common place to get a tick bite. However, ticks also are often found in areas that contain long grass or fallen leaves. When people walk through those areas, ticks can latch on.

“One of the best ways to prevent tick bites is wearing long sleeves and long pants,” Dr. Sedlacek says. “It’s also a good idea to wear light-colored clothing so you can easily see ticks that have latched on.”

Other smart steps include tucking pants into socks and staying on marked trails while hiking.

Choosing a Repellent

For those spending extended time outdoors, treating clothes and boots or shoes with products containing the pesticide permethrin will kill ticks when they make contact with your gear.

“Read and follow application instructions on the permethrin bottle. Never apply concentrated permethrin directly to your skin,” Dr. Sedlacek says. “Insect repellents are another option for preventing tick bites.”

The Environmental Protection Agency’s insect repellent search tool can help people find the best insect repellent for their needs. Always read labels carefully, particularly when it comes to using repellents near young children. Avoid the eyes and mouth when applying any kind of insect repellent.

Take care when coming inside after spending time outdoors. Showering or bathing right away can help remove any ticks before they bite. Placing clothes in a dryer on high heat for 10 minutes can kill any hiding ticks.

“Always check your body thoroughly after spending time in areas where ticks are often found,” Dr. Sedlacek says. “Use a mirror to view all areas of your body, and check children over carefully so you can remove any ticks right away.”

Tick Bite 101

If you do get a bite, remove the tick as soon as possible.

“Use a fine-tipped tweezers and grasp the tick as near to your skin as you can,” Dr. Sedlacek says. “Avoid leaving the head embedded. Pull directly upward with steady pressure without twisting or jerking the tick.”

You can flush the tick down the toilet or save it for identification by placing it in rubbing alcohol or a sealed container or bag.

“Clean the area of the tick bite with rubbing alcohol or soap and water, and wash your hands thoroughly as well,” Dr. Sedlacek says.

Watch for Symptoms

As Lyme disease is prevalent in Central and Northeast Wisconsin, it’s best to talk your health care provider for advice on how to proceed if you discover a tick bite. Generally, doctors don’t prescribe antibiotics following a tick bite unless symptoms arise.

If you experience any of the following symptoms within 30 days of discovering a tick bite, call your doctor:

  • Muscle pain, joint pain, or swelling
  • Fever or chills
  • Headache or fatigue
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Rash appearing at the tick bite and expanding gradually — this may or may not appear as a classic target-shaped “bulls-eye”

Later symptoms can include:

  • Severe headache
  • More rashes on other areas of the body
  • Facial palsy (paralysis)
  • Nerve pain or shooting pains/tingling in the hands or feet
  • Severe joint pain or swelling, particularly of large joints
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Dizziness/shortness of breath

“Any of these symptoms are a reason to seek medical help, regardless of the cause,” Dr. Sedlacek says. “And if you have any question about whether a milder symptom is connected to a tick bite, you should contact us so we can help determine the best course of action and help you avoid more serious illness.”

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Tags: insect repellant Lyme disease permethrin ticks

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