Everything You Need to Know about Lyme Disease and West Nile Virus

Summer is a time to enjoy being outdoors. Summer is also a time when the pesky mosquitoes and the creepy-crawlies come out, and some of those bugs are capable of transmitting diseases to humans. Lately, I have had a few questions from parents who are concerned about some of those diseases that are popular subjects in the news – Lyme Disease and West Nile Virus.  So I thought I would take a moment and provide a little information on the subject.

What is Lyme Disease?

Lyme Disease is an infection that is transmitted by the bite of an infected tick. The disease itself is named after the nearby city where the first outbreak occurred – Lyme, Connecticut (for those who like a little trivia). Although Lyme Disease is much more prevalent in other areas of the country, such as the Northeast and the Wisconsin / Eastern Minnesota region, there are usually several reported cases each year in South Dakota.

Symptoms of Lyme Disease

The symptoms of Lyme Disease are similar to other flu-like illnesses: fatigue, fever/chills, headache, and muscle aches. A unique characteristic for Lyme Disease is the presence of a rash that looks like a bulls-eye (a red spot at the location of the tick bite, then clear skin surrounded by an increasing ring of redness). If the infection is not treated, other symptoms can develop weeks, months, or even years later, including arthritis, nervous system problems, and heart rhythm problems.

Treatment of Lyme Disease

There are blood tests that can confirm the diagnosis, but they will take several weeks following an infection to be helpful. Usually the diagnosis is made by the characteristic appearance of the rash in addition to the history of a tick bite or travel in an environment where the tick is common. Once diagnosed, the disease is treated with antibiotics and when identified early, the disease usually responds well to treatment.

Understanding West Nile Virus

West Nile Virus (WNV) is transmitted by the bite of infected mosquitoes. Unlike Lyme Disease, which is relatively uncommon in South Dakota, WNV is much more common. However, most people (70 – 80 percent) do not develop any symptoms if they are infected. If the symptoms do develop, they are also similar to a flu-like illness with fevers, headache, body aches, vomiting and diarrhea. These symptoms usually resolve on their own and because the illness is caused by a virus, treatment is largely supportive. Occasionally, the infection will involve the nervous system and cause diseases, such as encephalitis and meningitis (inflammation of the brain and spinal cord). This complication is rare (less than 1 percent) and can occur in patients of any age, but those most commonly affected by severe illness are over the age of 60 or have certain chronic medical conditions.

Prevention is Key

With both of these diseases, prevention is the best strategy. Clothing is an important barrier – dress in light-weight long pants and shirts and closed shoes if you know you will be in an area where ticks are common. Avoid bright colors and scented soaps and lotions as these may actually attract insects. Once you are all back indoors after an outing in tick-country, be sure to check everyone’s skin for ticks. Permethrin is an effective repellant for ticks and mosquitoes, but it should only be applied to clothing – ask your doctor for more information if this is a strategy you are considering with your travel plans.

What is DEET?

DEET is an effective insect repellant that can be applied to areas of exposed skin. In children, the recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics is a DEET concentration of no more than 30 percent. Products containing DEET should not be used on infants less than two months of age. Use caution when applying to a child’s face; and be careful about their hands if there is a chance they can rub it in their eyes. You may encounter a combination sunscreen / insect repellant with DEET when shopping around; however, you should be aware that the DEET makes the SPF of the sunscreen less effective, and reapplying more frequently (as you would do with a lower SPF sunscreen) can expose your child to too much DEET.  There are other non-DEET containing compounds, usually made from essential oils found in various plants, which are also effective insect repellants.

It is smart to have Lyme Disease and West Nile Virus on your radar, but with proper protection and awareness, you shouldn’t let these diseases keep you and your family from enjoying the outdoors this summer. If you have questions regarding Lyme Disease or West Nile Virus, visiting with a medical professional is a great place to start!

By Dr. Samuel Schimelpfenig

Pediatrician at Avera McKennan

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