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A growing number of people become ill from Lyme disease after tick bites each year. Understanding this infection and how it spreads will help you understand the steps you need to take to avoid its unpleasant and sometimes serious side effects.

Lyme disease is caused by Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria. The bacteria are spread to humans who are bitten by young (nymphal stage) deer ticks. Nymph ticks become carriers of the bacteria because they feed off the blood of rodents who also harbor the bacteria. Adult deer ticks feed on deer blood. Deer are not Borrelia burgdorferi carriers, so full-grown ticks rarely spread Lyme disease.

Untreated Lyme disease causes long-term problems

The progression of Lyme disease is marked by three stages. Antibiotics effectively attack the bacteria when the infection is in its early stages. However, if you delay treatment, the bacteria can wreak havoc on your health.

  • Early-localized stage: For at least three-fourths of people who contract Lyme disease, the first symptom is a raised, red spot, usually in the area of the tick bite. This spot, which can be solid or resemble a bull’s-eye, can grow anywhere from 6 to 12 inches and then disappear in the course of a few weeks. Although the spreading rash isn’t painful, it might feel warm.

  • Early- disseminated stage: This is the stage of Lyme disease when you begin to feel sick all over, like you’re coming down with the flu. Symptoms include, fatigue, sore muscles, headache, swollen, painful joints, and a stiff neck. Your symptoms may come and go.

    However, you can develop some serious complications, including meningitis, an irregular heart beat and heart-muscle damage. Half the people at this stage develop smaller versions of the raised, red bumps characteristic of the early-localized infection but they appear in other places on the body.

  • Late stage: If you don’t seek treatment, the effects of Lyme disease infection will be with you for years to come. Approximately 60 percent of untreated people suffer from severe, recurring arthritis attacks. A small percentage of people develop tingling and numbness in their back and limbs. Memory problems, mood changes, and confusion can also be side effects of untreated, late-stage Lyme disease.

    You can still suffer from Lyme disease symptoms for months or years after the bacteria have been defeated by antibiotics.

Avoid Lyme disease by looking close, covering up

Now that you know all the harm one nasty little tick bite can cause, here are some tactics you can use to keep yourself free from Lyme disease.

  • Look where you’re walking. Steer clear of tick-loving habitats such as tall grass and dense plants. Stick to well-worn or park-created hiking trails.

  • Cover up in light-colored clothing. Don’t give Lyme disease-carrying ticks easy access to your bare skin. Wear close-toed shoes, pants, socks, a long-sleeved shirt, and a hat. Pull your hair back and up. Opt to wear light colors so you can easily spot a tiny, dark tick if it lands on you.

  • Apply insect repellent. Use a product containing 20 to 30 percent DEET on your skin and clothes. Just remember to reapply it every few hours as directed by the manufacturer. You can also pretreat your clothes with Permethrin, a repellent sold at hunting and camping supply stores. Permethrin will stay on your clothes through several washings.

  • Tour your body, tumble your clothes. Once you’re home, take a magnifying glass and examine every inch of your skin for ticks, even the parts of your body that were covered. (A shower won’t do. The water force won’t be powerful enough to remove a feeding tick.) If you find a tick, gently remove it with a pair of tweezers. Put your clothes in the dryer for 20 minutes to kill any ticks that might be attached.

    A tick has to be attached to you for one to two days before it can begin transmitting the Lyme disease bacteria into your bloodstream. So examine your skin closely for ticks after every woodsy outing. The sooner you spot that little biter and pull it off of you, the more likely you are to protect yourself from Lyme disease.

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