The season for outdoor fun in Contra Costa County is here. But, whether hiking on a trail or playing in the yard, remember to take precautions against six-legged hitchhikers -- particularly ticks.
It's easy to pick up these parasites while out enjoying the weather and, while no bug bites are pleasant, our most common tick species in the East Bay are known to carry Lyme disease.
A few precautions can help any hiker, jogger or bicyclist avoid this potentially debilitating disease -- detected in 56 of California's 58 counties -- and they are well worth the trouble.
Lyme disease, with an estimated 300,000 cases diagnosed annually in the United States, is no longer considered exotic. It is the most common tick-born disease reported in the United States, but is also difficult to diagnose because its early symptoms can resemble mononucleosis or flu.
If detected early, it can be cured with antibiotics. Untreated, it can lead to years of painful symptoms and a lengthy recovery. Just ask my friend, Lia.
Lia got sick out of the blue in 1998. Her symptoms included bouts of rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath and chest pain. This baffled her and her doctors, as Lia was a healthy, active graduate student who spent a lot of time outdoors.
Her symptoms lingered, and she was still looking for answers in 2008 when she finally developed the "bull's-eye" rash after a camping trip in Mendocino County, as well as other symptoms commonly associated with Lyme disease: chronic joint and neck pain, fatigue, night sweats and disorientation.
In hindsight, Lia probably contracted Lyme disease from a tick bite way back in 1998, and was exposed again in 2008. As a late-diagnosed patient, she endured years of treatment -- from antibiotics to acupuncture to strict diet and exercise regimens -- before getting better.
Lia's experience tells us that the rash is not a foolproof means of detecting the disease. Most Lyme disease patients get it, but not all, and it isn't always easy to notice.
Her difficulty finding the correct diagnosis also shows that Lyme disease is not well understood in the medical community.So, while we learn more about this disease every year, there is great incentive to avoid it in the first place. To do that, we need to consider ticks.
Black-legged and deer ticks carry Lyme disease bacteria. Not all of them do, but enough to cause concern if you find one on your body.
So, when you visit wooded or grassy areas, consider insect repellent. Wear light-colored clothing, and tuck pant legs into socks. Hats help, as does pulling back long hair. Search your body during and after an excursion to tick habitat.
If you find one, use tweezers to pull it off from the head, not the body. Pull upward, without twisting, to avoid breaking off parts of the insect. It's also a good idea to keep the tick in a zip-top bag (with a moist paper towel if it's still alive) in case it's needed for identification or testing.
If you have been bitten, call your doctor right away and keep an eye open for flu-like symptoms. Treating Lyme disease early is critical to your health.
Dr. Pepper practices family medicine at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center. Lia Gaertner is an advisory board member of Bay Area Lyme Foundation. Visit www.bayarealyme.org.