May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The month of May has been designated Lyme Disease Awareness Month, and - as the weather warms up and people are spending more time outdoors - it's an appropriate moment to remind Marshall County residents about the risks of tick-borne illness, and how to minimize the risk of infection. Lyme disease has been reported in all 50 states, and many foreign countries.

The first thing to do to protect yourself from Lyme is to prevent tick bites. Ways to do this include:

* Hike in the center of trails, and try to avoid brushing against plants. Ticks like cool, moist places such as low brush, tall grass, flower gardens, or piles of leaves.

* Wear light-colored clothing so that you can see ticks better. Make it difficult for ticks to access bare skin by tucking long-sleeved shirts into pants, and long pants into socks; wear shoes or boots, not sandals.

* Use repellant. There are repellants that can be put on skin, and other ones to put on clothing - be sure to know which one you have.

When you come back in the house:

* Check yourself carefully for ticks. Look, feel, and use a mirror.

* Put your outdoor clothes on high heat in the dryer for an hour to kill ticks, or put them in a trash bag and spray permethrin into the bag.

* Remove ticks promptly. It can take several hours for a tick to transmit Lyme disease. An attached tick can be removed by sliding something under it, such as a credit card or tick remover, and applying pressure at the point of attachment until the tick releases itself. Large ticks may be removed with fine-pointed tweezers, but be careful not to squeeze the body.

Cause and transmission

Lyme disease is caused by Borrelia burgdorferi (Bb) bacteria. This type of bacteria are known as "spirochetes" because of their spiral shape. Ticks feed three times in their lives, as larvae, nymphs, and adults. They bite and remain attached for several days, feeding on blood. Ticks pick up Lyme disease by biting an infected creature, such as a rabbit, mouse, chipmunk or bird. The tick then transmits the bacteria to another animal or human when it takes its next meal. Lyme is often transmitted by ticks in the nymph stage, which are as small as a poppy seed - so small they are not detected.

Diagnosis and treatment

Seek prompt medical attention if you suspect a tick-borne illness. Some, but not all, cases of Lyme disease start with a "bull's eye" rash around the site of the bite. Others start with flu-like symptoms. Diagnosis is based on signs, symptoms, and exposure to ticks. Lyme tests are unreliable, and there is no test to prove a person does not have Lyme.

Lyme disease is most likely to be cured if treated promptly with antibiotics for at least six weeks.

If Lyme is left untreated, or is inadequately treated, it can reappear years later, and have profound and disabling effects on a person's whole body.

Local Lyme survivor Bob Fitz said, "You feel so bad you don't want to live any more." Fitz thinks he has been infected with Lyme for years, and says he has been mis-diagnosed with a host of illnesses ranging from gout to bipolar disorder.

"I was forced into retirement in 2000," Fitz says. "I forgot how to read. It's taken 10 years to get to the point where I'm halfway functioning."

Now he's trying to get the word out to his fellow citizens about Lyme disease, and reminding them that prevention is better than cure.