As hikers and other nature lovers seek the wild trail, they must be aware that bears and rattlesnakes are not the only hazards in the forest. Deer ticks (Ixodes scapularis) are very active in the summer months and continue to be active into early winter. These ticks can transmit Lyme disease.
"The biggest problem we have is diagnosis," says Dr. Charles Pitts, professor of entomology in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences. "The symptoms of Lyme disease are so common that many infected people think they have the flu or a cold."
Symptoms include fever, headache, muscle pain, nausea and swollen glands. About half of Lyme disease sufferers will develop a rash that begins as a red circular patch at the site of the bite.
If caught early, Lyme disease is easily cured with penicillin, tetracycline or erythromycin. Left untreated, the rash and primary symptoms will fade away.
Weeks or months later, secondary symptoms such as migraine headaches, arthritis, dizziness or an irregular heartbeat can surface. At this stage, Lyme disease is much more difficult to treat.
Pitts says a major obstacle to Lyme disease recovery is human nature. "When people take antibiotics for any kind of illness, they often quit taking the medication when they feel better," he says. "When the disease returns as the antibiotic levels decrease, the disease can be much more severe.
"Physicians often treat symptoms without knowing the exact diagnosis," Pitts says. "Lyme disease can be cured easily -- if you take the entire prescription of antibiotics."
Lyme disease is transmitted almost solely by the deer tick. The deer tick has three stages: adult, nymph and larva. In most cases, humans are bitten by larval ticks, which are roughly the size of the period ending this sentence.
In the adult stage, deer ticks are more likely to feed on white-tailed deer, dogs, raccoons and foxes.
"Hunters should be particularly careful when handling game or dressing a deer," says Pitts. "Be careful not to cut yourself, and make sure you have no open cuts because you could acquire infections from the deer."
There is not as much risk from adult ticks attaching to humans after the host deer has been shot. In most instances, hunters can dress or carry a deer without fear of ticks crawling onto them. "The tick's mouth parts anchor it to the skin," Pitts explains. "They also secrete a kind of cement that keeps them attached. They're usually on the deer pretty tightly."
To avoid ticks, Pitts recommends the following precautions:
- Keep away from infested areas -- particularly in May, June and July.
- Wear light-colored clothes to spot ticks more easily.
- Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants, and tuck pant legs into boots.
- Use an insect repellent containing DEET on your clothes and skin.
- After being outdoors, wash clothing, drying it at a high temperature.
- Shower and inspect your body for ticks.
"Most experts believe the tick has to be on the body at least 24 hours to transmit the disease," Pitts says. "So it's really important to check your body carefully after being out in the woods."
To remove a tick, place tweezers close to the tick's head and pull straight back, taking care not to crush the tick. Make sure all mouth parts are removed, and wash and disinfect the bite area.
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