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Common Sense Precautions Key to Avoiding Lyme Disease

From the Iowa Department of Natural Resources

-- Iowa woodlands are turning green. For local outdoor enthusiasts, the time has arrived for such things as serious spring birding, matching wits with fan tailed gobblers and, of course, the perpetual quest for fresh morel mushrooms.

Unfortunately, the long awaited warm weather also marks the beginning of the annual tick season. And with those ticks comes an increasing threat of the diseases these parasites transmit—including the now infamous Lyme disease.

Lyme disease is a debilitating tick-borne illness that can rapidly transform your life into a living nightmare. Transmitted by the blacklegged (deer) tick, Lyme disease is on the increase across Iowa.

"Although at least 15 different species of ticks have been identified in Iowa, only three of those species—dog ticks, lone star ticks and blacklegged ticks—are known to attack humans or pets. And although all three species can transmit disease to humans, only the blacklegged tick can transmit the bacteria that causes Lyme disease," says Jon Oliver, manager of Iowa State University's Lyme Disease Surveillance Program.

"There's no question that deer ticks are expanding their range across Iowa and that population densities are growing," says Oliver. "In 1993, there were a total of eight diagnosed cases of Lyme disease across the entire state. Today, we're seeing over 100 new cases each year and the number continues to grow. Given the fact that we're seeing more deer ticks in more Iowa counties each year, it's really no surprise that we're also seeing an increase in disease."

As Lyme disease horror stories become increasingly common, some nature enthusiasts are becoming reluctant to visit state woodlands. Although the newly found fear factor seems reasonable, Oliver cautions Iowans not to overreact to preconceived notions.

"I absolutely do not tell people to stay out of the woods," says Oliver. "That would be ridiculous. What I do stress is precaution and prevention. What it really comes down to is just common sense stuff."

"When returning from hunting mushrooms or hiking a trail, for example, everyone should very carefully check themselves for ticks. Lyme disease is not easily transmitted to humans and it takes at least 36 hours for an attached tick to transmit disease," says Oliver. "Deer ticks are extremely small and the trick is that you must find them all. Children should be double checked. Most youngsters aren't very good at checking themselves and ticks seem to love kids more than anything."

"Of course, the best way to prevent disease is not to get bit in the first place," notes Oliver. "I recommend using insect repellent and plenty of it. It doesn't have to be something exotic, expensive, or hard to find. Anything containing DEET is effective. DEET will repel anything and is relatively safe to use."

"I also tell people to wear long sleeved shirts and long pants. Ticks are more easily detected against light colored clothing and be sure to tuck pant legs into socks."

"It really comes down to three basic things," says Oliver. "Wear appropriate clothing.  Use insect repellent. Perform routine tick inspections. It really is that simple."

If precautions fail and you do discover an imbedded tick, Oliver says not to delay in getting the hitchhiker checked out. Although Lyme disease is dangerous and nothing to fool with, most cases can be completely cured with proper diagnosis and antibiotics. The earlier diagnosis and treatment occurs, the better the chances for a full recovery.

If you are exposed to a tick in Iowa, and would like more information on that tick, place the specimen in a plastic sandwich bag along with a single blade of grass and send it to: Lyme Disease Surveillance Program, Iowa State University, Science II, Room 436, Ames, Iowa 50011. Include your name and address, city or county where the tick was found, when it was found, and whether or not the tick was attached.

To learn more about ticks and tick-borne diseases, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at:   

-- By Lowell Washburn

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