Lyme Disease to Surge This Summer: The #1 Way to Keep Your Kids Safe

mom and baby in tall grass
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If you live in the Northeast, it's hard enough to believe that spring is finally here, so it might be even harder to think about warmer summer weather and everything that comes along with it. But after a recent report showing that 2017 will see a huge surge in Lyme disease, it's beyond time to plan for prevention and learn more about all things Lyme, especially when it comes to your kids.

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When I was growing up in New England during the '80s and '90s, Lyme disease was always something you heard about, but wasn't necessarily something that actually impacted you. And that's because incidents of Lyme were fairly low back then. But that has all changed. In fact, in the last 20 years, cases of Lyme disease have tripled.

Lyme disease -- which is spread via infected ticks -- is not something to be taken lightly, especially if you have kids. I know, since my son has had two separate cases of Lyme disease over the last three years.

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But what is Lyme disease, exactly?

Lyme is an infectious blood disease spread via deer ticks and is primarily found in the Northeast, though more and more cases have started to be seen outside this area. In fact, the CDC has seen cases spread as far south as Virginia, and as far west as Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. There have even been small areas of cases reported on the West Coast. What was once thought to be something only farmers or serious hikers could contract has exploded into a disease that has a far-reaching impact. 

Quick tick checks can help keep your kids safe:

Lyme-ridden ticks usually hang out in the woods and among tall grass, so nightly tick checks are a must if you live in areas with those types of landscapes. It takes anywhere from 24 to 36 hours for an attached tick to transmit bacteria, which is why nightly checks are crucial in preventing the spread of Lyme. 

mom son bath
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As the CDC's Kiersten Kugeler tells NPR: "In the Northeast, most people catch Lyme around their homes. People out gardening. People playing in their backyard. Mowing the lawn." 

Unfortunately, due to the spike in Lyme-ridden mice and ticks, infected ticks could even be present in your backyard, so don't leave things up to chance. A quick, two-minute check every night could help prevent you or your children from acquiring Lyme.

What if you DO find a tick?

If you do find a tick, don't panic. The CDC has step by step instructions on how to remove it. You definitely do not want to chance not getting all of it out, leading to possible further infection.

When we discovered the tick on our son (during a nightly tick check!), we were able to successfully remove the entire thing. We then brought it to a local university that tests ticks for disease. A few days later, we received the report that the tick was positive for Lyme. That helped us take our next steps as far as treatment went. If you do not have a local resource for tick testing, but would still like to have a found tick tested, you can send it along to UMass's testing facility, which tracks and keeps stats on all ticks that come through the facility.

Finding a tick does not necessarily mean you or your child will contract Lyme. And, unfortunately, there doesn't always have to be a tick present to indicate the potential for Lyme. So it helps to know what else to look for beyond a tiny black bug.

Signs of Lyme:

Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician and affiliated scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, lets concerned parents know what to look out for. "Parents who live in areas in which Lyme disease is prevalent should look for bull's-eye-shaped rash as well joint swelling and pain (in those who may have had longstanding unrecognized infection)," says Dr. Adalja.

He also notes that while there certainly are other possible signs of Lyme (in my son's case, it was incredibly powerful mood swings), the "other symptoms of Lyme are largely non-specific and not helpful in distinguishing Lyme from other conditions."

We "lucked out" the first time my son contracted Lyme disease. We had actually found a tick on him, had it tested, and then, based on those results, had my son's blood drawn and tested for Lyme, followed by a couple weeks of strong antibiotics. The second time, however, wasn't so cut and dry. We had not found any ticks, and there was no telltale bull's-eye rash anywhere. However, having gone through it the year before, I had some mother's intuition. Unfortunately, it took almost a month of convincing doctors before they tested my son's blood and confirmed what I had suspected all along: He had Lyme disease. Again. This time, his symptoms ended up being much worse and the treatment was a lot longer/harder on him than before.

The good news:

If diagnosed and treated close to the time of infection, chances are you or your child will recover 100 percent, according to Dr. Adalja. "The vast majority of patients who have had Lyme disease accurately diagnosed and are placed on standard treatments do very well," he explains. "Symptoms will dissipate over time with treatment."

little girl with pet cat
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Tick control:

There are also things you can do to help lower the chances of ticks being found in your yard and house. Mosquito Squad, the largest mosquito and tick control franchise in the Northeast, shared with us their tips for tick control around your home:

    • Clear out -- Reduce your tick exposure by clearing out areas where lawn and tree debris gathers.

    • Clean -- Eliminate leaf litter and brush by cleaning it up around the house and lawn edges; mow tall grasses and keep your lawn short.

    • Choose plants wisey -- Select plants and shrubs that are not attractive to deer and/or install physical barriers to keep deer out of your yard.

    • Check hiding places -- Know tick hiding places and check them frequently. Fences, brick walls, and patio retaining walls are popular hiding places.

    • Care for family pets -- Family pets can suffer from tick-borne disease and also carry infected ticks into the home. Talk to your veterinarian about using tick collars and sprays.

Honestly, the most important thing I've learned through all of our experiences with Lyme: Stay vigilant and trust your gut. Do those tick checks every night. And, advocate for your child if you suspect Lyme, and know that usually, all it takes to confirm is a blood test, and it can be treated with aggressive antibiotics. Lyme sucks, no doubt about that, but it also shouldn't prevent you and your family from enjoying the beautiful outdoors during the summer!

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