Hundreds sickened by tiny ticks in last 5 years

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BEDFORD, Ind. (AP) — Arthur Medicine Eagle didn't realize a parasite so small could make a person so miserable.

The 62-year-old Bedford resident was bitten by an American dog tick — no bigger than a pencil eraser — in the summer of 2012 while he was clearing brush at a camping site in Perry County.

A week later, he experienced flu-like symptoms. He went to a doctor, who put him on antibiotics for a month. But his condition got worse. He began feeling fatigued and suffering knee-buckling headaches.

"Since then, my life has been a living hell," he told The Herald-Times (http://bit.ly/1fUvVgD ).

Medicine Eagle sought help from a slew of doctors for months, but said it was a Bloomington physician who finally diagnosed him with Rocky Mountain spotted fever and put him on medications that helped control his headaches.

"But I still get very fatigued," he said. "I have a hard time climbing steps because my muscles ache, and I sometimes need injections to control my headaches. I feel like a lesser human being because I have to rely on others to help me with things like yard work and working on my car."

Medicine Eagle is not alone. There were 32 "probable and confirmed" cases of Rocky Mountain spotted fever in Indiana last year, according to the Indiana State Department of Health. There also were 109 cases of Lyme disease, courtesy of the deer tick; and 49 cases of ehrlichiosis, transmitted by the lone star tick.

Because of these statistics, state health officials say people should take measures to protect themselves from these oval-shaped, eight-legged creatures — who can latch onto your skin and drink your blood until they balloon to the size of a grape and make you seriously ill or even kill you.

They're waiting in naturally vegetated areas and woodlands, craving blood. Though not all ticks are infectious, many of them are capable of transmitting potentially fatal diseases. In the spring of 2011, a Mitchell man died from complications resulting from a bite from an American dog tick, which infected him with Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

The initial symptoms of Rocky Mountain spotted fever and ehrlichiosis are similar. They include a fever, coupled with fatigue, muscle aches and pains, severe headache and chills. A rash may also develop shortly after onset — first appearing on the arms, legs, palms of the hands and soles of the feet before spreading to other parts of the body.

Scot Moore, a pediatrician with Riley Physicians at IU Health, said Lyme disease is a bacterial infection transmitted to humans through the bite of a black-legged deer tick. The state health department said there have been 443 cases of Lyme disease in Indiana in the past five years.

"Some believe that the cases are underreported," Moore said. "With changes in the deer population and migratory habits of white-footed mice — animals required in the life cycle of the Lyme disease bacteria — Lyme disease is predicted to become more prevalent in the future."

Moore said Lyme disease symptoms generally develop 7 to 14 days after a person is bitten by an infected tick. Early symptoms often include fever, headache, fatigue, neck pain and joint stiffness. More than half of patients develop a rash that appears as an expanding red ring around the tick bite, resembling a target.

He said late symptoms might include arthritis, heart rhythm disturbances, meningitis, encephalitis, or cranial nerve abnormalities — most commonly Bell's palsy, a paralysis of the facial nerve that weakens the eye blink and the ability to smile on one side of the face.

There is no cure for Lyme disease, but Moore said antibiotics will typically treat the illness. In 2009, Bloomington's Dale Jones was diagnosed with Lyme disease after a tick bite left a red mark on Jones' skin with a red circle around it. A doctor treated him with antibiotics, and within a few months he fully regained his strength.

But a person with late or chronic Lyme disease, the state health department website says, often requires intravenous antimicrobials for two to three weeks.

Moore said the medical caregiver must order the correct confirmatory tests to diagnose the illness. He said there are different tests for Lyme disease, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a specific two-step blood test for accurate diagnosis.

Moore said that while many people believe they have symptoms of Lyme disease, few actually do.

"Lyme disease is not contagious, and can only be contracted via a tick carrying the bacteria," he said. "Few tick bites can actually transmit the disease. It must be a deer tick; the tick must carry the bacteria; and the tick must be attached and engorged for at least 48 hours to transmit illness."

Health officials say if you plan to enter a grassy or wooded area where ticks are often present, the best way to protect yourself from ticks is to wear a long-sleeved shirt and light-colored pants, with the shirt tucked in at the waist and the pants tucked into the socks.

For added protection, insect repellents containing DEET or picaridin can be sprayed on both skin and clothing to repel ticks and other insects. People who expect to be exposed to ticks for extended periods of time should use products containing permethrin on their clothing, but not on bare skin. Permethrin is an insecticide that kills ticks and other insects on contact.

After leaving a grassy or wooded area, people should check for ticks on their clothing and skin. Ticks must be attached for several hours to a couple of days before they can infect an individual.

State health officials say ticks attached to your skin can be safely removed with either tweezers or forceps by grasping the tick as close to the skin as possible and pulling upward with steady and even pressure without squeezing the tick. You should not remove ticks with your fingers, but if tweezers or forceps are not available, you can use tissue paper or a paper towel to prevent the passing of any possible infection.

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Information from: The Herald Times, http://www.heraldtimesonline.com

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