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Could it be Lyme disease?

Lyme disease is caused by an insect the size of a poppy seed, yet this mysterious ailment has generated huge concern. First identified in Lyme, Connecticut, in the mid-’70s, the disease is a bacterial infection most often carried by immature deer ticks and most frequently contracted in high grasses or heavily wooded areas. Although most cases of the disease respond successfully to antibiotics, Lyme disease can cause serious complications—including heart, neurological and arthritic problems—if it goes undetected and untreated. While almost 20,000 cases were reported in 2006, experts say that the disease goes greatly underreported.

While the disease has been reported in nearly every state, more than 90 percent of the cases identified since the mid-’70s have occurred in three areas—the Northeast, the Upper Midwest (Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois) and California. Your risk, therefore, depends to a large extent on where you live and where you travel. It also depends on what you do to minimize your chances of infection.

Telltale symptoms

Because you can be bitten by a tick and not notice (tick bites are painless), it’s good to know the two most common symptoms of early Lyme disease: a bull’s-eye rash (also called a cigarette-burn rash and usually marked by red concentric circles with a white center) or symptoms of flu, including headache, fever, stiff neck and nausea. If you experience either or both symptoms after possible exposure to ticks, don’t delay in seeing a doctor.

The best way to deal with Lyme disease, of course, is to avoid tick bites in the first place.

Best ways to avoid ticks

After you’ve spent time outdoors, check your body, including your scalp, for ticks—which are often mistaken for specks of dirt. You can easily brush or wash an unattached tick off your skin.

If you find an attached tick, don’t panic. Simply remove it with tweezers. Grab as close to your skin as possible and slowly lift straight up. Ignore those old remedies you may have heard about, such as lighting the tick with a match or dousing it with gasoline. They’re not effective. Save the removed tick and take it to your doctor, who can check to see if the insect is carrying Lyme disease.

Whenever you’re in wooded areas or tall grasses, even when it’s hot, wear a hat, shoes, socks and long pants tucked into your socks—in light colors for easy contrast to ticks. You can also put clothes worn outdoors into a hot dryer for 20 minutes before washing to kill any ticks attached to fabrics.

As ticks can neither jump nor fly, the only way to get them on you is by brushing against them. So stay in cleared areas away from vegetation when possible. Be careful with pets—particularly dogs—outdoors. Ticks can land on them and then be transferred to you.

Repelling the varmints

You may also consider using repellents and insecticides specifically formulated to work against ticks. Some of these products are for use on skin, others on equipment and property.

If you’re observant and careful, you’ll still be able to enjoy the pleasures of nature—and worry less about Lyme disease.