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Avoid Lyme Disease

If you do get it, it's very treatable

The deer tick, that nasty little thing that digs its head into and sucks your blood. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The only thing my friend Brian will do outside is golf. He calls golfing “outdoors lite” and attributes this affliction to an earlier one: he got Lyme disease and has been afraid to go into the woods ever since. But Lyme disease is easily avoided and easily treated, so don’t let it keep you from getting out.

What is Lyme disease? It’s a bacterial infection spread to humans through deer ticks that carry the disease. If one of ′em can latch on to you long enough, they can infect you with it.

How do you avoid getting Lyme disease? Deer ticks are most often found in high grass and leaf litter. The best way to avoid finding a tick on your skin is to wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts. “It’s kind of easier said than done on a hot summer day,” admits Matt Stauffer, an instructor for Wilderness Medicine Institute. But Matt still advises long clothing as a first defense. “A lot of experts say make sure it’s light colored so you can watch the tick cross,” he adds, noting that deer ticks are very small and therefore hard to see. “If you see a freckle move, it’s probably a tick.”

Many expert sources, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommend using a bug repellent containing DEET on your skin and permethrin on your clothing to repel ticks. But in the final analysis, preventing Lyme disease comes down to two words: tick check. “That’s when you find out who your friends are,” Matt says. As long as you do a thorough tick check on your body at the end of the day, you can remove any ticks before you’re at risk for Lyme disease. It actually takes about 48 hours for a tick to get gorged on your blood, for the bacteria to multiply in its gut and then for the tick to drool it back into you. (Yuck.)

How do you recognize the symptoms of Lyme disease? The most well-known symptom of Lyme disease is a bull’s-eye rash, which looks that way because it is a traveling rash. It’s a circle of red on the outside and your natural skin tone in the middle because it’s no longer rashing in the middle. “About 80 percent of the people actually get the rash,” Matt notes. If you’re in the 20 percent who get Lyme disease but no rash, you will probably have flu-like symptoms of fatigue and muscle ache. “If you’re an outdoorsy person, you pulled a tick off (and) a couple of weeks later you feel like you got the flu, you may have gotten a tick-borne illness,” Matt says. The key to knowing that it’s Lyme disease and not the flu is knowing that tick season and flu season are generally on the opposite ends of the calendar. Most cases of Lyme disease occur May through July.

Is Lyme disease treatable? “If you treat it early, 90 percent of the patients will be cured, no big deal,” Matt says. The standard treatment is a round of antibiotics, usually doxycycline. “If you don’t get treated, sometimes it goes away on its own … but unfortunately it will come back,” Matt says. When it comes back, you might get the rash then. Gone untreated, Lyme disease can lead to arthritis and even cardiovascular and neurological problems. Matt says the facial paralysis known as Bell’s palsy is the “classic slam dunk” of untreated Lyme disease. But it rarely comes to that and certainly doesn’t have to. “Any way along the way, you can get it treated,” Matt says, “The trick is to not let it progress.”

Let it progress long enough and Lyme disease may lead to the really unthinkable: golfing.