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Beware the Risk of Lyme Disease

When we think of summer, most of us think about enjoying the great outdoors —gardening, camping, hiking, or just spending time in the yard. Unfortunately, all that outdoor activity also means incorporating tick protection into our plans.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more cases of Lyme disease are reported than of any other vector-borne disease in the United States. Unfortunately, those of us in the northeast and upper Midwest are most at risk, since 96% of all Lyme disease cases have come from just 13 states in these regions, including Massachusetts. In fact, from 2002 to 2011, Massachusetts reported nearly 24,000 confirmed cases, or an average of 2,400 a year.

People become infected with the Lyme disease bacteria, known as Borrelia burgdorferi, when they are bitten by an infected blacklegged tick. Within as few as three or as many as 30 days, the onset of Lyme is evidenced by an array of symptoms that can include a red, expanding “bull’s eye” type rash, fatigue, fever, chills, headache, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes. Other, more severe symptoms can continue to appear for months or even years, once the infection spreads from the site of the tick bite to other parts of the body.

Here are a few of the CDC’s tips for preventing Lyme disease.

Protect yourself from tick bites. Avoid walking through vegetation when in wooded or grassy areas. If hiking, walk in the center of the trail. Use a repellent with DEET (on skin or clothing) or permethrin (on clothing and gear), making sure to follow these products’ instructions, and assist children in order to avoid application on the hands, eyes, or mouth.

Perform daily tick checks. After spending time outdoors, conduct a body check from head to toe, especially under the arms, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, on the back of the knees, in and around all head and body hair, between the legs, and around the waist. Remember that immature ticks are so small that they can be difficult to see. Tumble clothes in a dryer on high heat for an hour to kill ticks.

Remove attached ticks immediately. Use finetipped tweezers to grip the tick as close to the skin as possible. Pull upward with steady, even pressure, without jerking or twisting the tick. Then, cleanse the area with rubbing alcohol or soap and water. Don’t follow such folklore remedies as “painting” the tick with nail polish or petroleum jelly or using heat to make the tick detach itself.

Create a tick-safe zone. Modify your landscaping to keep ticks away from recreational areas, such as patios and play areas, by keeping shrubs, bushes, and other vegetation at least three feet away. Apply a chemical control agent, or ask a pest control expert to do it. Discourage deer from entering your yard using fencing or by removing plants that attract them. Finally, mow the lawn frequently and keep leaves raked.

Keep your pets tick-free. Use tick preventatives, such as topical treatments or sprays, available at your local pet store or veterinarian’s office, and follow package directions closely. Check your pets when they come in from the outdoors to prevent bringing ticks into your home.

Your risk for acquiring Lyme disease (or any other tick-borne illness) depends on many factors, including what type of tick bit you and how long it was attached. If the tick has been attached for less than 24 hours, your chance of getting Lyme disease is very small. But of course, if you become ill after a tick bite, be sure to see your healthcare provider.

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