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Look Out for Lyme Disease

Fall has arrived, and many people like to travel to the mountains to watch the leaves turn, or enjoy hiking in parks and camping on weekends. However, it is quite easy to be unaware of small insect-like pests that can cause serious systemic illness. One example is the friendly tick that harbors the germ causing Lyme Disease.

Facts about Lyme Disease:

It is also known as the “Great Imitator” because it is often mistaken for other illnesses such as mononucleosis, strep throat, the flu, meningitis, tension headache, ringworm, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, and others.
It is caused by a spirochete, a small spiral bacterium, which is transmitted to humans through infected ticks.
It is present in at least thirty-eight states in the United States and twenty other countries.

Although the disease is more prominent in the Northeast, cases do occasionally occur in the Appalachian foothills and North Georgia Mountains. Several species of tick (Ixodes), which primarily feed on deer, squirrels and small rodents, carry the spirochete known as Borrelia burgdorferi. Human infection primarily occurs by a tick bite directly transmitting the bacteria through the skin. The spirochete passes through the skin and produces a toxin, which can gradually elicit an immune response involving the skin, joints, and central nervous system.

The disease, in its mildest form, brings about drowsiness and flu-like symptoms as well as a distinctive bull’s-eye like rash. Left untreated, however, serious complications, such as heart problems, nerve or brain damage, and chronic arthritis can occur. The symptoms can appear weeks to months after exposure. The arthritis can occur anytime from several days after the rash to up to two years later and can last for decades.

The major warning signs of Lyme Disease include:

Usually a red spot or rash occurring at the site of a tick bite, which could develop days to weeks after the bite. The redness can expand like a widening ring up to six inches in diameter. It leaves a clearing of normal skin between the ring and the initial bite (which stays red). This leads to the classic bulls-eye or target appearance.
Chills, nausea, headaches, neck stiffness, fatigue, dizziness and fever persisting for several weeks after tick bite.
Muscle, joint pain, and joint stiffness usually beginning in the knees.
Heart irregularity, weakness in the lungs, facial paralysis and numbness can occasionally occur.

How do you know you’ve been infected? If you notice a red spot with a red ring around it (the hallmark bulls-eye rash) immediately seek medical care. However, twenty-five to forty percent of people never develop the rash; that is the reason one should be alert for flu-like symptoms (chills, nausea, fatigue) which develop days to weeks after a trip to the mountains, and seek medical care. There is an available blood test for Lyme Disease; if you test positive, then antibiotic treatment is initiated.

Lyme disease is easy to treat in the earlier stages of the illness. Oral tetracycline, penicillin or erythromycin kills the infection readily. For the later, more advanced stages of disease (such as meningitis, heart involvement, or arthritis), longer courses of intravenous or intramuscular injections of antibiotics are needed.

Since this is an illness with vague symptoms and a prolonged course, detection of the disease is often difficult. Also, while Lyme-disease is one of the most well-recognized and feared of the tick-borne infections, there are many other infections that are carried by ticks here in the South. Therefore prevention of this and other tick-borne infections is crucial. Obviously, the best method to prevent these diseases is to prevent tick bites.

The best method to avoid tick bites and enjoy the outdoors is to dress defensively. Use repellants and inspect clothing for ticks. Wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts or thermals, boots and socks when going through tick areas such as long grass, brush and wooded areas. Hats will help avoid ticks attaching to your hair. Light colored clothing makes it easier to detect attached ticks. Shower and scrub well after spending time in the woods. Tick repellants such as Permanone or DEET on clothing will help lower the risk of tick attachment.

Always check yourself well for ticks after returning from the woods. Make sure you check everywhere, including those hard to reach places. This is much easier to accomplish (and much more fun) if you have a buddy help you check. If you do find a tick attached, the best way to remove it is with a pair of fine tweezers. Grasp the tick at its head, as close as possible to your skin and the area of attachment. Hold tightly and pull up gently but firmly until the tick releases. If you pull too forcefully you may pull the tick’s mouth off, leaving it behind to cause local infection. If you squeeze higher up on the abdomen, you may squeeze more bacteria into the wound increasing you risk of getting Lyme disease or another tick-borne illness.

Lyme disease does not mean that the outdoors should be avoided; it simply requires attention to clothing and the use of repellants, as well as a heightened alertness for signs and symptoms of infection, and early treatment by a medical professional.

 
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