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Lyme Disease

In the spring and summer, you might hear about something called Lyme disease. It has nothing to do with limes, but it does have something to do with ticks, those creepy, tiny bugs that like to drink human blood. Disgusting!

Blame Lyme disease on those bloodsuckers because some of them carry around bacteria called spirochetes (say: SPY-ruh-keets). And if the bacteria get in a person, they can cause the infection Lyme disease.

The best way to prevent Lyme disease is to prevent tick bites. Let's find out more about this disease and how to keep those ticks away.

How Do Ticks Spread Lyme Disease?

Ticks feed on mice, dogs, deer, horses, and sometimes people. They have eight legs, but are so tiny, they might look like a speck of dirt or the head of a pin. You're most likely to run into them in grassy or wooded areas. In spring and summer, you're more likely to have a lot of skin exposed (like when you're wearing shorts and a T-shirt), so it gives ticks a lot of opportunity to get on your skin.

You don't feel anything when the tick first bites you. You probably won't even know the tick is feeding. After an infected tick bites you, it can release the spirochetes into you. If the tick has been there a while (more than a day or two), there is a small chance that you can get Lyme disease.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Lyme Disease?

Your doctor is the person who can tell for sure if you have Lyme disease, but here are two common signs:

  1. feeling tired and achy all over, like you have the flu
  2. developing a red, circular rash (often called a bull's-eye rash) at the site of the tick bite

The rash may be big — between the size of a quarter and 10 inches (30 centimeters) across. This rash spreads out over time and is called erythema migrans (say: er-uh-THEE-muh MY-gruns), or migrating red rash. Later, the rash also can appear somewhere else on your body, far from the tick bite.

It's important to go to the doctor right away if you or your parent think you might have Lyme disease. Someone who waits too long — or doesn't realize he or she was bitten by a tick — might start to feel even worse. In some cases, a person's face muscles might stop working properly. That means the person wouldn't be able to smile on that side or close that eye. This is called Bell's palsy, or facial nerve paralysis (say: puh-RAL-uh-sus). Other people might develop swelling (puffiness) or pain in their knee or another joint a few months after the tick bite.

Sometimes, people don't have any signs that they are sick with Lyme disease.

What Do Doctors Do?

The bull's-eye rash might be enough for your doctor to decide you have Lyme disease. Or they might decide to test some of your blood to figure out if it's Lyme disease.

If you do have Lyme disease, the doctor will prescribe an antibiotic, a medicine that kills the spirochetes. You've probably taken antibiotics before, like when you had an ear infection. You'll have to take the antibiotic every day, just as your doctor tells you. If you don't, or you stop taking the medicine too soon, it won't have a chance to kill all the bacteria.

Who Gets Lyme Disease?

Some people live in areas where Lyme disease is common. Why? Because a lot of those nasty ticks live there, too. In the United States, most infected ticks live in the coastal Northeast (from Maine to Washington, D.C.) and in the upper Midwest (states like Minnesota and Wisconsin).

Impress your family and friends and tell them these are endemic (say: en-DEM-ik) areas — areas where infected ticks live.

Besides living in one of these areas, other things that might increase a person's risk include:

  • spending a lot of time outdoors in tall grass, brush, shrubs, or wooded areas
  • having pets that may carry ticks indoors
  • activities such as yardwork, hiking, camping, fishing, or hunting in tick-infested areas

How Can I Avoid Lyme Disease?

What do you do if you live among ticks that cause Lyme disease? You can take these steps to avoid getting bitten:

  • Ticks hang out in wooded, grassy areas, so cover up if you'll be playing in those areas. If you'll be walking through the woods, wear a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, knee-high socks, and a hat to cover your hair. If it's warm outside, you might not want to put on so many clothes. Ask your mom or dad to help you choose lightweight, cool clothes that will still keep you covered. Wearing an insect repellent also might help. Have your parents apply one that contains 10% to 30% DEET.
  • June and July are the worst months for ticks. But be aware that you can get a tick bite anytime between April and October (and during other months on the West Coast).
  • Even if you follow all the rules, you still could get bitten by a tick. Time for a tick check! A tick check is when you have your mom or dad look over your body to see if you have any tick bites. If you've been playing outside in grassy or wooded areas, it's a good step to take before you bathe or shower.

    You can check yourself too, but you won't be able to see everywhere. Try looking at the back of your thigh, for instance! Your parent should be sure to check your armpits, arms, groin, belly button, behind your ears, and behind your knees. Also, have a parent check your head!

If you do have a tick, your mom or dad can remove it with a pair of tweezers. Tweezers are those two-pronged metal instruments often used to pull out eyebrow hairs or remove splinters. The best way to do it is to use the tweezers to grab the tick by its head and pull it out firmly and slowly. Try to be patient if your mom or dad is doing this. That tick is better out of you than in you!

The tick can be handled with a tissue to avoid spreading the bacteria around. Your mom or dad might even put it in a sealed container to preserve it so it can be tested for Lyme disease. That's one less tick out there to bite someone. Goodbye, tick!

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date Reviewed: Apr 10, 2022

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