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While ticks have always been an inescapable part of venturing beyond the city limits, not only is this yearís infestation in rural areas the worst I can remember, but the chances of encountering these tiny terrorists in a city park or even oneís own backyard are exponentially greater than usual.

To my discredit, there was a time I would have read the preceding paragraph and responded, ďSo what.Ē Then a good friend contracted Lyme disease after having been bitten by a tick.

The permanent damage inflicted by a creature that may have been very little larger than the period at the end of this sentence exceeded that caused by well over 99 percent of all poisonous snake bites in North America.

Even if Missouriís bears and mountain lions attacked people ó which, so far, they havenít ó itís extremely likely the tick that bit my friend did more harm.

I donít advocate applying large amounts of repellent, before venturing outdoors into the close-cropped vegetation found in the typical city park or backyard.

Since the overwhelming majority of ticks do not carry dangerous diseases, conducting a close, thorough inspection of skin and clothing immediately after coming indoors should be sufficient to remove most ticks before theyíve had a chance to inflict any damage. A tick must be attached to its host for several hours before the transfer of disease organisms begins.

Those of us who venture deep into the ticksí home territory face an entirely different situation. For us, more drastic action is required. Given thereís no medical reason not to, begin by applying repellent containing at least 95 percent DEET directly on your skin. Repeat the application on each layer of clothing. †

Some sources tout permethrin, which should only be put on clothing, as a safer alternative to DEET. My personal experience with tried permethrin is limited, but so far it seems that, when combined with my body chemistry, itís an irresistible tick and mosquito attractant.

If wearing camouflage or dark-colored clothing isnít an essential part of what youíre doing outdoors, opt for light-colored clothing. Light colors are not only less attractive to ticks, but the bugs are easier to see and remove from light-colored clothes.

Wear long pants, long sleeved shirts and boots with at least 12-inch uppers. Keep each item tucked into the item below it, because ticks tend to crawl uphill.

But what happens if you decide thereís no need for a defense against ticks, and you donít mind pulling them out of your thick hide for several days after every outing? If you encounter the wrong tick, you just might find yourself attached to one of several possible ticking time bombs.

Lyme Disease. Despite continued denials by some experts, the Missouri citizens who are suffering from this disease remain convinced it does exist here. Lyme disease is actually caused by a spirochete bacterium, but itís transmitted to humans by deer ticks.

Contrary to what many people ó including yours truly ó once believed, larval ticks (known as seed ticks in the Midwest) are the most common culprits.

Lyme disease usually begins with a rash that appears at or near the location of the bite three to 30 days later. Sometimes the center of the rash fades, leaving a bullís- eye pattern. The rash may burn, hurt or itch.

Other early symptoms include fever, chills, headaches, stiff neck, fatigue and muscle aches. Left untreated, Lyme disease can spread to the heart, brain, nervous system and joints.

Tularaemia. There are several ways to contract Tularaemia, one of which is being bitten by an infected tick of any species found in the Midwest. Symptoms, which usually begin somewhere between three and 14 days after being infected, include sudden fever, chills, headaches, diarrhea, muscle aches, joint pain, dry cough and progressive weakness.

Tularaemia is a serious disease. So much so, the bacterium that causes it has been considered as a source for a WMD.

Ehrlichiosis. This is another bacterial infection spread by deer ticks, dog ticks and the Lone Star tick. Symptoms include fever, chills, malaise, headache, muscle and joint pain, nausea, and diarrhea.

Most cases are mild, but untreated Ehrlichiosis can progress into seizures, difficulty breathing and coma.

Babesiosis. Fortunately, babesiosis is rare, because it can be fatal. Itís a blood infection caused by a parasite that lives primarily in deer ticks.

Babesiosis can be asymptomatic, but more often symptoms include high fever, chills, sweating, tiredness, joint and muscle aches, poor appetite and headache. This disease has been diagnosed in Missouri.

Iím sure youíve noticed that the symptoms of all of these tick-borne diseases are virtually identical to those of the flu. This unfortunate coincidence leads many people to delay seeking medical attention, and it causes some doctors to be reluctant to order the battery of tests necessary to isolate which bacterium is present or to prescribe the proper course of antibiotics.

If you even think you may have a tick-borne disease, seek medical help immediately, and donít be shy about insisting that the possibility of a tick-borne disease be thoroughly explored.

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