Those of us who own dogs are familiar with the summertime routine of removing ticks that attach themselves to our pets. But what we may not be aware of is the potential these little creatures have for causing severe illness in people.
Ticks carry the bacteria that cause Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Veterinarian Harvey Fischman, a colleague at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, explained to me how dangerous ticks are and how we can protect ourselves and our children.
Q: What is Lyme disease? Is it the same as Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF), and how dangerous are these diseases?
Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria and is usually transmitted by the small nymph of the black-legged tick (formerly called the deer tick). Because the nymph is so small these bites often go unnoticed. Yet if undetected and untreated, Lyme disease can have long-term, debilitating effects, including chronic arthritis, vision problems and heart irregularities.
Rocky Mountain spotted fever is transmitted by a larger, mature tick.RMSF can be fatal if not treated promptly, but with early treatment, recovery is generally complete. Unlike with Lyme disease, laboratories have the ability to diagnose precisely RMSF through a blood test.
What are the symptoms of Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is hard to diagnose, partly because the symptoms are so vague. Symptoms like tiredness, generally not feeling good, aching joints, headaches, fever, skin rashes and numbness in the arms, hands and face are common to many illnesses, and as a result, it is easy to misdiagnose Lyme disease in the early stages of the disease.
One of the few distinctive symptoms of Lyme disease is the "bull's eye" rash, which develops after being bitten by an infected tick. It is important to look for this early sign of the disease and to contact a doctor immediately should you notice such a rash. If it is caught early, Lyme disease is treatable and curable.
What are the symptoms of RMSF?
Early signs of RMSF can also be vague. In the beginning, they aresimilar to an upper respiratory infection, but one distinctive symptom is a rash that usually begins at the soles of the feet and on the palms of the hands and then spreads toward the torso. If the disease is treated promptly with antibiotics, recovery is complete, and thereafter the individual is immune to the disease. If untreated, however, RMSF can be fatal.
How can I protect myself and my children from tick bites?
The best protection is prevention. Be alert if you are camping or biking in the countryside or simply walking the dog in a neighborhood park or wood. If your children are playing where ticks are prevalent -- in the meadows or woods -- they should wear long pants tucked into socks or shoes. There are also tick repellents on the market.
Pets, if they are exposed to tick-infested areas, should be "dipped" in insecticides. Finally, parents should examine children regularly for ticks when they have been outdoors.
For more information on Lyme disease, write to: American Lyme Disease Foundation, 3 International Drive, Rye Brook, N.Y. 10573.
Dr. Matanoski is a physician and professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.