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Lyme Disease, a hiker’s hazard

We all look forward to enjoying our Sunday hikes in the warm summer weather.  However, there are also, at this time, some small ectothermic invertebrates that see us as an opportunity to pursue their lifestyle.

Every organic product is a food source for something.  One of the richest, nutrient laden products is blood and many creatures have found ways to use it, either as a primary food source or, as in the females of mosquitoes and some biting flies, as a rich source of protein for their eggs.

While a biting arthropod takes only a small amount of our blood, many internal parasites have adapted to use them as a way of transmitting themselves from one host to another.  Probably, the biggest hazard to hikers in our area is the spirochete, Borrelia burgdorferi, which, if untreated, can make its host into a helpless cripple, and is spread by the feeding of the small external parasitic deer tick, Ixodes dammini. The disease was first described in 1975, from a cluster of cases occurring near Lyme, CT, and was named after that location.

The deer tick didn’t use to be present in our area but, they seem to be expanding their range and many outdoor enthusiasts have encountered ticks this year.  There are ways hikers can reduce their chances of becoming tick food.  The questing tick often waits at the top of ground vegetation, to latch onto a passing host.  Stay on the trail and avoid contact with this vegetation as much as possible.  However, sometimes, it can’t be avoided.  Some trails are narrow, kidneys need to be tapped, and, as in our case, there may be mushrooms to pick.

Experienced hikers never wear anything but full length pants, no matter how hot it is.  Shorts, pedal pushers etc. should never be worn in the woods.  Moving our summer hikes up to 4:00 helps avoid the hottest part of the day.  Larval deer ticks are black and about the size of the period at the end of this sentence.  If your pants are a light color, you have a much better chance of seeing one crawling up your pant leg.  Convertible pants are a good choice for hikers.  They’re usually synthetic (hikers shouldn’t wear cotton garments), a light color, and, after the hike, the legs can be zipped off, and become shorts.  Before starting hiking, pant legs should either be tucked into socks or covered with gaiters, and sprayed with a repellent.  One containing DEET works well.  Since questing ticks can also go to the ends of tree leaves, caps provide some protection.  Some literature recommend long sleeve tops but, hikers also need to be aware of heat stroke, a very serious condition caused by overheating.on hot days.

When you get home, remove and examine all garments and put them in the laundry hamper.  Stand in front of a mirror in your birthday suit and examine your ventral surface.  Have you and your partner examine each other’s dorsal surface.  If a tick is embedded in your skin, remove it carefully with tweezers, being careful to also remove its mouthparts.  Tick removers can be purchased at sporting goods stores.  Never try to relax it with alcohol, since this may cause it to upchuck and inject the Lyme parasite into your bloodstream.

Ask your doctor if you should place the live tick in a secure vial and bring it to his office to send to a lab to identify it and, if a deer tick, determine if it has the Lyme parasite.  Also, ask if there is a vaccine for Lyme Disease.  I was given a shot for volunteering to be a test subject for one they were developing but, don’t know if it has been approved.  I was exposed to this disease when I was inspecting nurseries in Long Island.  If symptoms develop, antibiotic treatments are successful, if begun early.

And so, I raise my glass of delicious Eagle Crest wine, as a toast to a productive and healthy Springwater Trails summer hiking season.