Published on 10/03/02

Guard against ticks -- Lyme disease serious, too

Mosquitoes and West Nile virus are the hot topics of late, but don't forget to guard against ticks to prevent Lyme disease.

"While not known to kill anyone, Lyme disease can be a serious threat to your health," said Nancy Hinkle, an Extension entomologist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "It can make you very ill, even chronically ill."

First noted in Connecticut

Lyme disease was first discovered in 1977 when arthritis was observed in a group of children in and around Lyme, Conn., Hinkle said.

"Connecticut and New York remain the most common places to report the disease, with thousands of cases occurring each year," she said. "The disease is still extremely rare in the West and in the South."

"It didn't appear in Georgia until the late '80s and still isn't a threat to many people," she said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports only 434 cases of Lyme disease in Georgia since 1990. The disease is transmitted through Ixodes scapularis tick bites in the South. Different ticks are associated with the disease in other areas of the United States.

Carrier is smaller than most

Ixodes scapularis ticks are not easily identifiable. They're smaller than any other ticks found in the Southeast.

"They're commonly mistaken for the Lone Star tick, which is also a small tick," Hinkle said. "But Lone Star ticks have a white spot on their back." These ticks are less significant disease vectors.

If a tick has bitten you, watch the site for symptoms of Lyme disease.

Watch for a bull's-eye

"The first sign is a bull's-eye rash that forms on the skin near the infected bite," Hinkle said. "The rash is concentric circles of alternate red and white rings, giving it the appearance of a bull's eye."

The rash can form days or even weeks after you're infected. "It will go away in a few days, and the person will feel fine and forget about it," she said. "Then the second stage begins. This can happen months or even years later."

In this stage, bacteria (Borrelia burgdorferi) infect joint tissue, causing arthritis, or infect cardiac muscles, weakening tissue around the heart.

"The arthritis will appear only in one side of the body, either the left or right elbow or knee," Hinkle said. "It's not symmetrical like most other cases of arthritis."

In some cases the bacteria will attack the central nervous system, causing brain damage, memory loss, dementia or depression.

Treatable at all stages

Doctors can treat Lyme disease in all stages, giving this disease a low fatality rate.

"If intercepted early, while in the bulls-eye stage, antibiotics can be taken by mouth to treat the symptoms and stop the bacterial infection from spreading," Hinkle said.

If caught in stage two, antibiotics must be given intravenously, and a hospital stay is required.

"If Lyme disease damages the brain, the patient may never completely recover, even with treatment," Hinkle said. "Infections that have spread to the central nervous system are difficult to treat, because antibiotics cannot penetrate the blood brain barrier."

Sharon Dowdy is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.