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Ticked Off by Lyme Disease: Staying safe in the waning days of tick season 

click to enlarge Female ticks pre and post meal.
  • Female ticks pre and post meal.
Female ticks pre and post meal. Summer is quickly sliding away, fall is soon to arrive and by October we'll see the end of the so-called "tick season." Although rare, tick-borne diseases can leave us with serious medical problems, perhaps one of the worst is the dreaded specter, Lyme disease (LD).

This illness is no laughing matter for the victim or the medical personnel trying to figure out what to do about it. If allowed to remain in our bodies for long, so many things can go wrong it becomes almost impossible to know how to combat all the ailments, or what they are and where they came from.

The "good news" is that the ticks in the above photo are local wood ticks, and as of today, are not known to carry Lyme disease bacterium. That distinction falls to the deer tick, a close cousin.

Most tick bites are harmless, but several species, especially those found closer to the equator, can cause life-threatening diseases. In Oregon, we have to worry about Rocky Mountain spotted fever and LD, but there are other tick-borne diseases that can lay us out as well, such as tularemia (a plague-like disease found in rodents and rabbits that can be transmitted to humans), relapsing fever and a newly identified ailment known as ehrlichiosis, an illness that causes fever, rash, nausea, vomiting and weight loss.

The reason Lyme disease poses so many problems is because it's a multi-stage, multi-system bacterial infection caused by the microscopic bacteria spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi, which is most commonly transmitted by a tick bite. Incidentally, the disease takes its name from Lyme, Conn. where it was first identified in the United States in 1975.

This brings us to what we should look for on our bodies (or our children's bodies) if bitten by a tick. But first, how to remove said tick: If it's as big as the one shown above I would ask a physician to remove it. An emergency room physician will have the tools and the knowledge to handle a tick that size without any problems and know what to do afterwards to prevent infection. While I know there are a million ways grandma used to remove a tick and there are those patented trick devices that slide under a tick and ease it out, if you don't get all the tick - such as head and mouth parts - you can be in for a world of hurt.

A newly attached tick, such as the smaller one shown above can (usually) be detached - carefully- by grasping the body (abdomen) and gently pulling with a slow, twisting motion. This may leave a small hole in the skin that should be bathed in a strong disinfectant and treated with first aid cream or other ointment to prevent infection.

After removal, KEEP THE TICK! Seal it in a small vial of denatured alcohol and place a tag on it with the date and place you think the tick was encountered and when it was removed.

After the tick has been removed you need to watch for signs of something nasty. The usual LD symptoms include a red rash that can appear several days after infection and last only a few hours or as long as several weeks. The rash can be very small or very large (from half-dollar size up to 12 inches across). Skin problems can follow that mimic hives, eczema, sunburn, poison ivy, or fleabites and sometimes feel hot to the touch.

If you experience any of the above, it's time to see a doctor, but not any doctor. Try to choose one who has had experience with Lyme disease or is well read on the short and long-term symptoms of the disease.

Lyme disease is difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are not consistent and may imitate other conditions. The primary symptom is a rash, but unfortunately, it may not be present in up to 25 percent of cases. A positive diagnosis for Lyme disease is a clinical one made by a physician experienced in recognizing LD.

Diagnosis is usually based on the symptoms and history of the tick bite. Testing is generally done to eliminate other conditions and may be supported through blood and laboratory results, although even these tests are not absolutely reliable. Lyme disease, as mentioned earlier, is not an easy thing to deal with, but it is a serious ailment that, if allowed to remain in the human body, can lead to physical and mental problems.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Lyme disease continues to be a rapidly emerging infectious disease, accounting for more than 95 percent of all insect-borne illnesses in the US, and is greatly under reported. The number of annually reported cases has increased 25-fold since national surveillance began in 1982. This may be a bit of a no-brainer as the population of people has also increased, providing a greater number of hosts for the bacterium.

There is an Oregon Lyme Disease Network (OLDN) run by an all-volunteer force in Bend. It is a 501(c) (3) non-profit organization established to assist Oregon patients in understanding Lyme disease and educate state officials, physicians and others on current trends in Lyme disease diagnosis and treatments. OLDN was founded in July 2003 by volunteers who realized that many Oregonians had been misdiagnosed. They believed chronic fatigue, recurrent flu-like illnesses and the neurological and neuro-cognitive problems shared by many Oregonians now had a common thread - Lyme disease.

In the past two years, over 200 people have received help from the OLDN and have discovered medical resources that may identify the unanswered reason for (alleged) tic-borne health deterioration.

With all this said and done, the best "treatment" for ticks is protective clothing and knowing how to dress. White clothing does not attract ticks as easily as dark clothing and you can see a tick on bright clothing much easier than browns, greens, etc. If you're hiking, tuck your britches into your socks. Whether on horseback or on foot, as soon as you arrive at camp or back home, do a buddy check on one another for ticks in hidden places, especially along belt and hair lines.

That old saying about an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure is absolutely true when hiking in tick country - which is about all of Central Oregon.

OLDN can be reached by email, phone or fax. For general information, e-mail or call 312-3081.


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