It’s Lyme disease season: Current preventative research and how to protect yourself

Binghamton University's Lyme and Other Tick-borne Diseases Research Center focuses on research into the growing problem of tick-borne diseases.

Alumnus John Darcy, PhD '14, holds a tick found in the Binghamton University Nature Preserve. Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.
Alumnus John Darcy, PhD '14, holds a tick found in the Binghamton University Nature Preserve.
Alumnus John Darcy, PhD '14, holds a tick found in the Binghamton University Nature Preserve. Photography: Jonathan Cohen.

Lyme disease is a growing problem, not only in the Binghamton and surrounding areas, but in other communities across the country. Since it’s summertime – prime tick season – and people are keen to get outdoors and enjoy the warm weather, it’s especially important that they are aware of the dangers that ticks pose, particularly Lyme disease. Being educated on the topic is one of the first steps in protecting yourself.

“Lyme disease is the most prevalent vector-borne disease in the United States, with an estimated 300,000 cases every year,” said Ralph Garruto, professor of biomedical anthropology and director of the Lyme and Other Tick-borne Diseases Research Center at Binghamton University. “Lyme exists in both an acute and a chronic form. If Lyme is not treated, or treated properly, it can become debilitating and very difficult to cure.”

Garruto is among more than a dozen faculty members from various departments at Binghamton who are collaborating on nearly two dozen research projects at the new Lyme and Other Tick-borne Diseases Center at Binghamton University.

“My own research involves human risk of Lyme disease in the Upper Susquehanna River Basin in New York through tick surveillance (the vector), white-footed mouse surveillance (the reservoir for the Lyme infectious agent) and the impact of human demographics and risky human behaviors in built environments,” said Garruto. “[This includes] places where people live, work and recreate.

“One of our primary research goals is to develop a model to predict human risk of infection that can be broadly applied to areas endemic for Lyme and other tick-borne illnesses and to validate cost-effective public health strategies that can be used to mitigate and prevent disease in humans and pets,” Garruto added.

Signs and symptoms of Lyme disease

  • Symptoms can develop anywhere from three to 30 days after a tick bite, but sometimes it can take months for symptoms to manifest.
  • People will commonly feel very fatigued with flu-like symptoms.
  • Joint pain and muscle weakness are also common.
  • A bull’s eye red rash may appear: a symptom that is often a telltale sign of the disease.

Left untreated, Lyme disease can progress and cause serious neurological and cardiac complications, so it’s crucial to take immediate action and see a doctor upon noticing any of these signs, especially if you’ve recently been bitten by a tick.

Most people tend to think that they only have to worry about ticks when they’re deep in the woods or other unpopulated areas, but this isn’t necessarily the case. People are at risk for tick bites in common, everyday areas, too.

“People generally think about ticks when they’re in the middle of a dense forest or on an extended nature hike, but ticks are just as prevalent in backyards or on college campuses,” said Garruto.

Tips to protect yourself from ticks

  • Spray your clothes with Permethrin and allow them to dry before putting them on and heading outside. (Note: Do not spray Permethrin on your skin!)
  • Spray any exposed skin with a bug spray that contains DEET.
  • When outside, make sure to periodically check yourself for any ticks that may have decided to hitch a ride on you. Common places they like to hide are armpits, hair, the groin area and behind the knees.
  • Avoid sitting directly on the ground and coming into contact with vegetation.
  • Wear light-colored clothing to more easily spot ticks on you.
  • Upon returning indoors, throw your clothes into the dryer on high heat for 20-30 minutes; this will effectively kill any ticks you may have missed hiding in your clothes.

If you notice a tick on your body, don’t freak out and assume you will immediately get Lyme disease. Removing the tick within the first 36 hours of a bite greatly reduces the chances of the disease spreading to you, if the tick was infected. It’s important to remember that not all ticks carry the disease, but you should carefully look for any symptoms mentioned above and see your doctor immediately if symptoms develop. You should also save the tick in rubbing alcohol, if it was attached, for possible testing.

How to safely remove a tick

  • Use a pair of fine-tipped tweezers. Avoid using nail polish, petroleum jelly or a hot match to remove the tick. These methods do not work.
  • With the tweezers, grab the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible and pull upward with a steady motion.
  • Do not twist or yank the tick.
  • Finish by cleaning the bite area and thoroughly washing your hands.

While Lyme disease is a growing concern as summer is in full swing, don’t let ticks scare you off from enjoying the outdoors. If you are mindful of where ticks lurk and are proactive in protecting yourself from bites, you can still do everything you want to outside this summer.

Looking for more information on Lyme disease? Here are some helpful resources:

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