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Little tick, big problems: How to avoid Lyme disease

Monday - 7/21/2014, 4:54am  ET

Tick (WTOP/Finn Neilsen)
This tiny tick was on WTOP's Finn Neilsen after a golf outing. Just one tick bite can result in Lyme disease, though symptoms may not become noticeable for months. (WTOP/Finn Neilsen)

WASHINGTON -- A tiny deer tick can do a lot of damage -- with just one bite, it can transmit Lyme disease.

Not all ticks are carriers, but enough are to result in roughly 30,000 reported infections each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health officials say the numbers show only a fraction of the cases that actually occur.

That's largely because the initial symptoms of Lyme -- aches and fever -- are often mistaken for something else.

"Lyme disease is what they call the great imitator because it can cause of lot of symptoms that imitate other kinds of infections," say Niel Constantine, head of the Laboratory of Viral Diagnostics at the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

"One of the big problems with Lyme disease is people don't know they have it," he says.

The tick bites are often so small they go undetected and while a rash usually accompanies the bites.

"One out of five people don't get the rash at all," Constantine explains.

Antibiotics can prevent full-blown Lyme disease in almost all cases, but they need to be taken within days of the time the bite occurs. If not, the bacteria that causes Lyme will hide within cells and tissues, creating problems that can erupt months or years later.

Failure to treat it over the long term can result in things such as severe arthritis and persistent fatigue. Constantine says he knows the perils of chronic Lyme well because he had Lyme disease and had a lot of complications.

He was bitten by a tick years ago, noticed a little rash and shrugged it off. Four months later, he woke up "aching all over" and to this day, his symptoms come and go.

It is frustrating for this scientist -- an expert in infectious diseases. And he advises anyone who thinks they have been bitten by a deer tick to get to a doctor right away.

That is exactly what WTOP's Finn Neilsen did. He was out on a local golf course recently when he went after a ball is some tall grass, and came out with a couple of ticks.

Neilsen went home, took a shower, and as he was drying off, he noticed several tiny bites, including one where the tick was still attached. Since it was the weekend, and his doctor's office was closed, he headed to the nearest emergency room to have someone take a look, remove the tick and prescribe a course of antibiotics.

Some friends joked that he was over-reacting, but Neilsen is confident he did exactly the right thing.

"I just figured I would exercise caution to the extreme, and I would get it taken care of right away," he says.

Constantine says it was the right course of action.

"If you have any idea that you have been bitten by a tick or any types of rashes, right away get to a doctor and suggest that it was Lyme," Constantine says.

"If you treat early, most people will be cured," he emphasizes, adding "if you don't treat it early, that is when you have problems."

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