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Ticked Off With Lyme Disease

Carolyn Sheridan's family isn't surprised when she brings her work home. In fact, her husband, John, a Greenville, Iowa, farmer, and their children sometimes encourage her to do it.

Sheridan's job as an RN and director of the AgriSafe Clinic at Spencer Municipal Hospital often pays a health dividend.

Last summer her daughter, Euvonne, 21, had an unusual skin rash on her arm. Sheridan recognized it immediately. Five years earlier, she had correctly identified a similar rash on her mother-in-law.

Sheridan, who also is clinical director of the AgriSafe Network, made certain that both were treated with antibiotics for Lyme disease, an acute inflammatory bacterial disease spread by the black-legged tick (deer tick).

Growing Number Of Cases

Often associated with oak forests, this tick is common in the eastern U.S., Midwest, and Great Plains. It feeds on three different hosts during its cycle, often starting with white-footed mice, then another mammal, and finally a deer, or human.

"Our farmstead is wooded, and we see the deer come out nightly," Sheridan says.

The first cases of Lyme disease in the U.S. were identified in 1975 in Old Lyme, Connecticut, where a cluster of children showed symptoms of juvenile arthritis. Over 260,000 cases in 43 states were reported between 1993 and 2007. Human cases in Illinois rose to 108 in 2008 from 35 in 2000.

"Increased surveillance and awareness of Lyme disease may account for a portion of cases, but there's truly a rise in emergence," says Jennifer Rydzewski, a University of Illinois graduate student who spent four years surveying black-legged ticks, their hosts, and habitats.

"Ticks in the nymph stage are responsible for most human cases because their peak seasonal activity coincides with human activity outdoors during warm summer months," she says. "Their small size makes ticks difficult to see."

The following precautions are advised:

  • Wear long-sleeve shirts and long pants with socks tucked in.
  • Wear light-colored clothing to make ticks more visible.
  • Apply a tick-specific approved repellent (with DEET) and follow instructions.
  • Check for ticks daily, especially around the head and neck.
  • Stay within maintained trails.
  • Put outdoor clothes in a dryer.

Detection 101

Symptoms usually appear three to 30 days after exposure. About 70% of infected individuals develop a telltale bull's-eye-shape rash. It often starts small and expands over time. (See photo at the beginning of this article). Other early flu-like symptoms are fever, headache, and fatigue.
Oral antibiotics should be given within 72 hours of a tick bite. "An initial blood test isn't accurate because the body hasn't developed antibodies," Sheridan says.

If undetected, symptoms progress to arthritis (especially in the knees), facial paralysis, neurological and cardiac problems, general malaise, and fatigue. "There's a window of time before it becomes systemic," Sheridan warns.

Pets and livestock can be vaccinated, but there's no cure.

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