Ask UNF- Lyme In Florida

Ask UNF: Lyme disease in Florida - what you need to know

Wed, Jun 8, 2011 @ 11:00 pm | updated Wed, Jun 8, 2011 @ 1:49 pm

Summer is almost here, and it's a time when Floridians enjoy spending time outdoors. But that's also a place where individuals can be exposed to ticks and possibly Lyme disease. Kerry Clark, professor of epidemiology and environmental health at the University of North Florida, discusses the causes and treatments of Lyme disease and how to lower your risk for it.

What is Lyme disease?

Lyme disease is caused by a spiral-shaped bacteria known as a spirochete, which is transmitted by several species of ticks. About 20,000 cases are reported each year; however, surveys of doctors reveal that the actual number of cases may be 10 times that.

What are the signs and symptoms of Lyme disease?

Most people experience flu-like symptoms of fever, headache, body aches and fatigue. Sometimes a skin rash is present at or near the tick bite site. This rash is often oval-shaped and sometimes has a lighter area in the center, which can resemble a bull's eye. If not treated early, the infection can spread to joints, the heart and the nervous system. People who develop a late-stage infection often experience neurological symptoms, including chronic headache, fatigue, stiff neck, memory lapses, tingling sensations in the arms or legs and vision problems.

How is Lyme disease diagnosed?

Lyme disease is diagnosed based on such things as EM (erythema migrans) rash, flu-like symptoms and recurrent or relapsing arthritis - combined with the possibility of exposure to ticks. Current lab tests for Lyme disease are not very sensitive, so it's very difficult to get a positive result with most tests available today. On the other hand ... false positive lab test results for Lyme disease are rare.

How is Lyme disease treated?

Most cases of Lyme disease can be treated successfully with several weeks of antibiotics, if treated early. The success rate for treatment of later stages of illness is less certain and may require long-term, intravenous antibiotic therapy.

Does Lyme disease occur in Florida?

Yes. The blacklegged or "deer" tick that transmits Lyme disease in the Northeast is very common in Florida. Plus, there is evidence that another tick species (the lone star tick) also may be transmitting the infection in Southern states. Published research has shown that the bacteria is established in wild animals and ticks, and recent findings (as yet unpublished) document infection in humans in Florida.

Who is at risk for Lyme disease?

Anyone who spends time in grassy, brushy or wooded areas or who has contact with pets who frequent such areas could come into contact with an infected tick. Lyme disease infection can be acquired in national forests, state parks and literally in our own backyards. People are at risk for Lyme disease in Florida year-round since the climate allows some human-biting species of ticks to be active throughout the year.

What should you do if you get bitten by a tick?

You should remove the tick as soon as possible. Don't burn it, cover it with fingernail polish, petroleum jelly or use other folk methods to remove it. Instead, use tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible and pull it out with firm, steady pressure. Clean the bite site with soap and water. Very importantly, save the tick! Put the tick in a plastic Ziploc-type bag. Include a notecard that records the date and where you believe you picked up the tick.

What should you do if you think you might have Lyme disease?

See your health care provider. If you saved the tick, take it your doctor. If your doctor thinks you might have Lyme disease and you are willing, he/she may ... send a blood sample to the UNF lab for research testing.

How can you reduce your risk for Lyme disease or other tick-transmitted infections?

Avoid areas infested by ticks. Apply repellents such as those that contain DEET or permethrin. Wear light-colored clothing that makes it easier to see ticks on you. Check yourself and your children for ticks often during outdoor activities in tick-infested areas.

Who can I contact for more information?

Contact NEFLA at, or contact me at UNF. If you would like to send ticks for identification or possibly participate in my Lyme disease study, contact me at or (904) 620-1427.

Ask UNF is a monthly column that features the expertise of University of North Florida faculty and staff.

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Provided by the University of North Florida

Kerry Clark is professor of epidemiology and environmental health at the University of North Florida.