More than 30,000 cases of Lyme occur each year across the country, the CDC estimates. To the summer hazards of too much sun and heat, add the perils of tiny pests carrying infections, such as Lyme disease and chikungunya, that cause joint pain.
The number of people sickened by tick and mosquito-borne diseases in the U.S. has risen to record levels recently, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
By far the most common tick-borne illness is Lyme disease – transmitted by the deer tick, which grows to about the size of a sesame seed. In up to 80 percent of those infected, Lyme causes a round, red skin lesion that can grow as large as 12 inches wide and linger for a couple of weeks. (Less than a third of these infections cause the bull’s-eye rash considered a defining sign of Lyme disease.)
While most common in New England and the Upper Midwest, Lyme disease has been reported in every state, says John Aucott, MD, associate professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore and director of the Lyme Disease Research Center. Unlike many mosquito-borne illnesses, “most Lyme disease is transmitted in your own environment,” he says.
The first symptoms are flu-like – fatigue, fever and achiness. If Lyme disease isn’t treated with antibiotics in that early stage, it can lead to late Lyme arthritis, which often involves knee pain and swelling.
The Aedes aegypti mosquito can carry viral diseases such as chikungunya, Zika and dengue that cause joint pain as well as fever, rash and headache – and the joint pain can be even more severe for people with existing arthritis.
Although this mosquito, the main type that spreads these diseases, has been found in many states, most U.S. cases come from travel to tropical areas, says Houston rheumatologist Rajat Bhatt, MD.
Avoid tall grasses and leaf litter, and use a tick preventive on pets. For yourself, use an insect repellant registered by the EPA, such as DEET, and wear long sleeves and pants (in light colors to easily spot ticks). Treat your clothes and shoes with permethrin or buy clothing that’s pretreated to repel insects. And when you get inside, check your whole body for ticks.
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