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Thursday, September 4, 2008
Lyme disease: Seriously, it doesn't come from drinking too many gin & tonics

A WHILE BACK I went to the mountains of North Carolina and got Giardia.  Later I went to Africa and got malaria.  Little more than a month ago I went across my backyard to feed my goldfish and got Lyme disease.  No joke.

You know those pretty little Bambi-like creatures that prance across your yard?  You thought the worst deer could do was eat your Hosta and azaleas?  Well, that's not the worst.  Deer can also cripple you for life -- and I don't mean by coming through the windshield of your car.

Today's column is a public service announcement for those of you here in North Carolina who thought Lyme disease was something they got in Connecticut from drinking too many gin and tonics, because the disease, first identified in Old Lyme, Conn., in 1975, is here in the Tar Heel state -- and you better know about it before you get it too.

I went to the doctor last month because I had a mild headache that wouldn’t go away and I was waking up with night sweats -- and figured I wasn't going through menopause.  I tested positive for Lyme disease.

Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium that is transmitted to humans from deer by the bite of infected blacklegged ticks – tiny deer ticks (adults measure 1/8 inch).  Their nymphs, the even tinier tick babies, can give you Lyme disease without your ever seeing them.  All you have is little spot that looks and feels like a mosquito bite.

Left untreated Lyme disease can seriously disable a person and leave them in chronic pain.  But it doesn’t have to if you avoid the ticks that carry it, watch for and get it diagnosed if you don’t avoid getting bitten, and if you treat it early if you do get infected.

Caught early, most cases of Lyme disease can be treated successfully with a few weeks of inexpensive antibiotics.

How to avoid Lyme disease

You can reduce your chance of getting Lyme disease by avoiding ticks that transmit it by staying out of wooded and bushy areas with high grass and leaf litter.  You can use insect repellent with DEET on exposed skin and clothing.  Or you may apply another repellent, permethrin, which kills ticks on contact, to pants, socks and shoes but not on your skin.

You can perform careful tick checks after being outdoors.  If a tick is attached to your skin for less than 24 hours, your chance of getting Lyme disease is small.   Parents please check your children.

How to know you have it

You can stay on the alert for the symptoms of tick-borne illness.  The first thing that's generally noticeable for Lyme disease is a small lesion with an expanding "bull's eye rash” radiating from the site of the tick bite.  But this rash doesn’t always appear.  I never got one.

We've been told by doctor that even a small rash can be significant.  That's what my wife had and she was given antibiotics, too.

The rash may or may not come with the other signs such as a headache and general flu-like symptoms.  Mine were like the flu -- but the easiest flu I ever had.

The real problem comes few weeks or months later when the next stage begins with rashes not at the site of bite, joint pain, headache, stiff or aching neck and severe fatigue.

Have symptoms?  See a doctor

If you have any of these symptoms, first or second stage, see a doctor.  All I had was a mild but persistent headache, night sweats -- and the memory of removing a tiny mite of a tick.

If the Lyme disease is allowed to progress untreated to the late stage, chronic, difficult to treat symptoms may occur including arthritis of the large joints and seriously disabling neurological disorders.

I don't know what ehrlichiosis and tularemia are but like Rocky Mountain spotted fever they are tick-borne diseases.   (And despite its name, North Carolina has more cases of Rocky Mountain spotted fever than any other state, according to the Orange County Health Department, and it is a serious illness.)

Each of these tick-borne diseases may produce flu-like symptoms, such as fever, body aches and chills.  All can be treated by a physician if identified early.  The earlier you are treated with antibiotics, the better the results.

Due to early treatment, I have probably escaped serious long-term consequences.  I’d like it if my readers would too.

(If you want to know more about Lyme disease, Google "cdc lyme" and get very detailed information.)

Gary D. Gaddy really does have Lyme disease – and usually writes funnier columns when he’s feeling better.

A version of this story was published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Thursday September 4, 2008.

Copyright 2008  Gary D. Gaddy 

Authored by Gary G. Gaddy at 9:36 AM EDT
Updated: Wednesday, September 24, 2008 2:42 PM EDT
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