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Wed, Feb. 26

Some camping, hiking sites put people at high risk for Lyme disease

Along with its beauty, the outdoors can present health concerns for those who enjoy camping and hiking in more remote areas. Although there have been no reported cases in our state, Arizonans who plan to travel to rural areas in other parts of the Northern Hemisphere should be aware of the possibility of contracting Lyme disease.

Lyme disease is an infectious disease caused by a type of bacterium called a spirochete (pronounced spy-ro-keet), which is carried by deer ticks. An infected tick can transmit the spirochete to the humans and animals it bites. Untreated, the bacterium travels through the bloodstream, establishes itself in various body tissues and can cause a number of symptoms, some of which are severe.

If diagnosed and treated early with antibiotics, Lyme is almost always readily cured. Even in its later stages, it can still usually be treated effectively, but the rate of disease progression and individual response to treatment will vary from one patient to the next. Some patients may have symptoms that linger for months or even years following treatment. In rare instances, Lyme disease causes permanent damage.

Early symptoms may include fever, headache, fatigue and depression, as well as a characteristic circular skin rash called erythema migrans. If diagnosed in its early stages, Lyme disease can be cured with a few weeks of antibiotics. Without treatment, complications involving the joints, heart and nervous system can occur. These advanced symptoms can be much more difficult to treat.

In most cases, a tick must be attached to your body for 24 - 36 hours to spread the bacteria to your blood. If you discover a deer tick attached to your skin that has not yet become engorged, it has not been there long enough to transmit the Lyme spirochete. Nevertheless, it is advisable to be alert in case symptoms do appear. A red rash (especially surrounding the tick bite), flu-like symptoms or joint pain in the first month following any deer tick bite could signal the onset of Lyme disease.

The disease came to national attention in 1975, when a cluster of cases were reported in an area of Connecticut, which included the towns of Lyme and Old Lyme, from which its name was taken. It is now the most common arthropod-borne illness in the U.S., with more than 150,000 cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention since 1982. Its diagnosis and treatment can be challenging for clinicians due to its diverse manifestations and the limitations of currently available blood tests.

Within the U.S., the highest-density areas for risk of infection from deer ticks are the upper Midwest and Great Lakes region, the upper Atlantic coast and New England states, and the Redwoods area of Northern California. The overwhelming majority of reported cases of Lyme disease have been in these areas.

If you are planning a camping or hiking trip to any of these high-risk zones, it is wise to talk to local state park or forestry personnel about what precautions to take to avoid the possibility of infection while you're there.

If you think you may have been bitten by a tick, it's important to see your doctor as early as possible. If you are unaware of having been bitten but you develop a rash or fever within several weeks of visiting a possible high-risk area, see your doctor.

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