A mild winter and a wet spring mean that the threat of Lyme disease in Maine may be worse than ever this year. And it broke the record last year, striking in all 16 counties.
The bad news is that, if unrecognized and untreated, it may progress to cause arthritis and neurological problems, according to the Maine Medical Center Research Institute in Scarborough.
The good news is that disease is preventable and, even in advanced stages, usually treatable. So don’t panic. Avoid the disease-carrying deer ticks if you can. Inspect frequently to catch one that bites into you. Watch for an expanding red rash, which can mean that a tick bite escaped detection. A fever and joint or muscle pains can also mean that you have been bitten.
Know your enemy: Deer are most often blamed for the spread of Lyme diseases — because they are often the next-to-last host for the tick that actually can carry the virus to a human. But foxes, coyotes, pet dogs and mice also have roles.
The chain of events starts when a larval tick bites one of the tiny, white-footed deer mice, so named because their coloring looks like Bambi. The mouse may carry the deadly hantavirus but also the Borrelia bacterium, which produces Lyme disease. The tick matures into a nymph, which can infect some other animal each time it feeds on a new blood supply.
While feeding on, say, a deer’s blood, the tick lays eggs, which eventually will become new ticks. The ticks cling to brush or grass, waiting as long as weeks or months for a new blood supply to come along. It may be a person or a dog.
If the person has followed the advice of the Maine Medical Center and has tucked his or her pant legs into the socks and shirt tails into the pants, the clever tick keeps climbing upward until it can find bare skin, preferably a warm, moist place like an armpit or behind an ear or in the hair. Regular inspection is essential.
That’s when the trouble can really get going. The tick doesn’t usually transmit the Lyme bacteria until it has been attached for 24 or even 48 hours. And not all deer ticks carry the virus.
Once you find an attached tick, use fine tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible and pull gently but firmly until the tick lets go. Don’t touch it with bare hands, and certainly don’t squeeze it. Apply antiseptic to the bite and save the tick in a bottle of 70 percent alcohol for checking by a professional. And call the doctor.
The medical center quotes a recent study showing that a single dose of antibiotic within 72 hours of removal of a tick can prevent Lyme disease. If you don’t find a tick but experience symptoms such as a rash or fever, treatment can still help. Don’t risk letting it fester.
Remember: Lyme disease is scary, but it’s avoidable and treatable.