Lyme Disease: Know Your Enemy

It's been a crazy summer so far for ticks, says an expert — and it's only just begun

Summer is prime time for bug bites, but mosquitoes aren’t the only things to avoid this summer. Deer ticks carrying Lyme disease are a perennial threat — and June is peak season.

Less than 25 percent of patients recall the tick bite, despite a rash that’s characteristic of the disease.

“So far it’s been a crazy summer,” Dr. Thomas Mather, director of University of Rhode Island’s Center for Vector-Borne Disease and its TickEncounter Resource Center, told LifeZette.

Not too far from Mather, on Nantucket — which has some of the highest Lyme disease infection rates in the U.S. — scientists are trying to stop the spread of the bacterium responsible.

They’re starting by modifying the genes of mice, as they are carriers of Lyme disease as much as ticks are.

A team led by Kevin Esvelt, an assistant professor at the MIT Media Lab, first must find the genes that prevent mice and ticks from transmitting the bacterium. Theoretically, by creating and releasing those mice, it would stop the bacterium from spreading. The move would take at least a year to have an effect on the tick populations and infection rates, Esvelt told STAT.

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Lorraine Johnson, CEO of, said the plan would only address one of many rodents that can spread the disease. Other than mice, the grey squirrel and chipmunks are also sources of the bacterium.

Related: Creepy, Crawly, Disease-Ridden Ticks

“Genetic modification is a big step and may result in ‘unintended consequences’ — harms we cannot predict — to the ecosystem,” Johnson said.

Instead, she would rather see the nation adopt a tick abatement program just as it has for mosquitoes. Another alternative would be to genetically modify the ticks to affect their ability to reproduce or transmit diseases, as has been proposed for mosquitoes to combat Zika, she said.

New Pathways in Lyme Disease Treatment
Lyme disease is not as rare as we may think. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there are more than 300,000 new cases annually.

 If you are bitten and know the type of tick, you can prevent unnecessary exposure to antibiotics.

“Many patients are not diagnosed early,” Johnson said. Less than 25 percent of patients with the disease recall the painless tick bite, despite the bull’s-eye rash that is characteristic of the disease.

Lab tests miss roughly half of all cases of Lyme disease, so diagnosis can be delayed — as can treatment, she added.

Johnson said the country needs a new approach to treating Lyme disease. Current antibiotics leave anywhere from 10 to 35 percent of patients ill. She’s part of the MyLymeData project, which is looking at different treatment protocols that may work better to stop progression of the disease.

A recent study analyzed the effectiveness of Dapsone, a drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration and used to treat leprosy. This is a “novel and promising” treatment, according to Johnson. Other research from Northeastern University’s Antimi­cro­bial Dis­covery Center in mice looked at the effects of giving mice an antibiotic to kill actively functioning bacterial cells, and then giving additional doses to destroy per­sister cells — that are alive and dormant, and survive an initial round of antibiotics — as they begin to wake up but before they reproduce. Plans are afoot to test this “pulse-dosing” in humans.

[lz_bulleted_list title=”Tick Tips” source=””]Ticks attach low and crawl up.|Ticks are active even in winter.|Tick can transmit disease after 24 hours.|Pointy tweezers are best to remove them.|Tick repellant clothing does help.|Deer tick nymphs look like poppy seeds on the skin.[/lz_bulleted_list]

While all of this is in the works, protect yourself year-round, as summer is not the only time you can pick up ticks — they are starting to survive all year long in some areas.

Use tick products with permethrin, picaridin, or DEET — just don’t put permethrin on the skin. Some clothing can be treated with the chemical so people do not have to apply chemicals directly to the skin.

Natural alternatives include lemon eucalyptus oil, but Mather says to stick to methods that are proven effective. Most importantly, check yourself for ticks and pay special attention to areas behind the ears and on the knee, hair-line, armpits, groin, and belly button.

Already bitten? Ticks should be safely removed using tweezers near the head of the tick.

Mather hopes anyone who finds a tick will report it through his Tick Spotters program at If you are bitten and know the type of tick, you can prevent unnecessary exposure to antibiotics. Mather said many people still go to the doctor regardless of what type of tick bit them, and go on antibiotics they don’t need. His team usually gets back to people within a day to properly identify the tick.

“Not all ticks carry Lyme disease,” he added. “In fact, certain species don’t transmit it.” Mather hopes more people will follow this protocol to combat the nation’s “severe tick literacy problem.”

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Unaware of what ticks may be lurking in your region? In the South Atlantic — especially in Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia — Lone Star ticks are the most prevalent. American dog ticks have been very common and seen crawling up screens and getting into homes.

Deer ticks (black-legged ticks) are the only ones that transmit Lyme disease, but their prevalence has increased exponentially across the U.S. over the past 20 years, according to the CDC; this winter, new data showed Lyme disease-carrying ticks are now in half of all counties nationwide. A new, less preva­lent bac­te­rial species, Bor­relia may­onii, was also identified by Mayo Clinic researchers in February.

“The key to understanding your risk is to know what kind of tick it is,” Mather added.

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