. Monday, November 17, 2008
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If you’re shooting off the Rockies for some skiing this winter, don’t let fear of Rocky Mountain spotted fever spoil your vacation.

First, the peak season for Rocky Mountain spotted fever is summer––not winter.

Second, even though the disease was first identified in the Rocky Mountain states, it’s actually most common in Oklahoma, Tennessee and the Carolinas.

Third, no matter which state you are in, and no matter what the season, Rocky Mountain spotted fever is hardly anything to worry about. In order to be infected, you first have to get bitten by a trick––and not just any tick. The tick has to be one of three varieties capable of carrying the disease. In addition, your personal tick has to be infected with Rickettsia rickettsii, the bacteria that cause Rocky Mountain spotted fever. And the tick usually has to hang on to your skin for quite some time before passing on the bacteria. The chances of all of the above happening to you are, well, quite slim. According to government statistics, fewer than 700 Americans a year get the disease.

While this disease is nothing to stay awake worrying about, it’s nothing to laugh at either. Rocky Mountain spotted fever can be a nasty disease, starting with flulike symptoms and progressing to delirium, pneumonia and, in some cases, even worse fates. It is treatable, but without treatment, one person in five can die, say John Krebs, a public health scientist with the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

Staying Tick-Free

The best way to prevent Rocky Mountain spotted fever (as well as other tick-borne illnesses, such as Lyme disease) is to stop ticks from having dinner on you. Experts recommend the following.

Sport the buttoned-down look. Whenever heading into wooded or grassy areas in the summer or spring, don long pants, preferably tucked into high socks, and long-sleeved shirt to keep the creepy-crawlers away from your (to them) appetizing skin. It also helps to wear light-colored clothing. This makes ticks––which look something like small watermelon seeds––easier to spot and remove before they grab hold.

Remove attached ticks quickly. A feeding tick is disease waiting it happen. The longer it feeds, the greater the chance it will pass something on to you. “Transmission is unlikely if you remove the tick within 24 hours,” says William A. Petri, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of internal medicine and microbiology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

“The best way to remove a tick is simply to grasp it near the head, preferably with tweezers, and slowly extract it,” says Krebs. Try not to crush the tick, since that can spread harmful bacteria. After you’ve removed the tick, wash the area of the bite with plenty of soap and water. Incidentally, forget about using gasoline, petroleum jelly or other “simple” techniques for removing ticks, says Krebs.

Be repellent. When venturing into a wooded or grassy area on a summer day, particularly in an area known to harbor disease-carrying ticks, apply insect repellents containing DEET to your arms, legs and head. For added protection, you can spray your clothes with repellents containing the chemical permethrin.

Shield your pets. Sure, Fido loves picnics. Unfortunately, ticks love Fido. It is possible for dogs to get Rocky Mountain spotted fever, says Krebs. They may also bring disease-carrying ticks home, where they can hop on you. Protect all the members of your family by buckling your pets into tick-and-flea collars before allowing them to frolic in high-risk areas. While some of these collars are quite effective, they are no guarantee that your pets will arrive home tick-free. It’s best to also give them a good inspection as they enter the door.

Postbite Action

Should you get infected, it’s essential to get to the doctor as soon as you can. How do you know you’ve been infected? The first symptoms of Rocky Mountain spotted fever are headache, fever and muscle pain, which usually hit about a week or so after the tick passed you the germ, says Dr. Petri. “People will say it’s the worst headache they’ve ever had, and they’ll have muscle aches just everywhere.”

A rash usually appears three to four days after the first flulike symptoms appear. It typically begins on the ankles and wrists, then spreads to the trunk, the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. Without prompt treatment at the point, the disease can then cause delirium, pneumonia, low blood pressure and vasculitis, an inflammation of the inside of the blood vessels that can “affect every organ in your body,” Dr. Petri says.

While the rash usually appears early, one person in ten won’t get it until the disease is well advanced, and another one in ten won’t get it at all. Don’t wait for the rash before getting help, Dr. Petri advises. If you’re sick and even suspect Rocky Mountain spotted fever, you must see a doctor. He’ll give you tetracycline, doxycycline or other antibiotics, which should knock out the infection within days.


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