Take precautions before mountain biking in areas where Lyme Disease is prevalent

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Lyme disease is the nation's most common tick-borne ailment, and in certain places has become endemic.

The regions most affected are the Northeast coast from Southern Maine to Maryland, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Northern Indiana and California are some other areas where there is a moderate risk.

Off-road cyclists who often wear lightweight, sleeveless, and breathable mesh clothing during the warm months can be especially vulnerable if they ride the trails and fields in these areas.

Lyme disease is caused by the spiral-shaped bacterium Borrelia hurgdorfeti, carried by the deer tick. These ticks are extremely small, about the size of poppy seeds.

Symptoms of the disease often begin with the characteristic bull's-eye rash appearing within days or weeks of a bite. But then, because the initial symptoms sometimes resemble the flu fatigue, fever, headache, stiff neck, muscle aches, and joint pain they're often ignored or misdiagnosed. If caught early, Lyme disease can be cured with antibiotics. If not, the consequences can be serious and permanent.

If diagnosed early, a month-long course of antibiotics can stop what could become a far more serious progression of the disease. Untreated late-stage Lyme disease can lead to serious problems that can appear years after the initial tick bite.

The prospects for Lyme patients are much brighter today than just a few years ago. Public awareness is greater, and people who live in endemic areas are more likely to take precautions. Moreover, the Food and Drug Administration in 1998 approved an anti-Lyme-disease vaccine, and the FDA licensed a diagnostic test (which can be performed in a doctor's office and give results in an hour) in 1999.

The vaccine, which requires three doses during the course of a year, provides about 70 to 80 percent protection, and yearly boosters are required to maintain immunity. But the vaccine is not routinely recommended. Only people who live or work in tick-infested regions, and whose exposure to ticks is frequent or prolonged, should consider getting shots. Consider these six precautions to reduce your chances of contracting Lyme disease:

1. If you ride in tick-infested areas, stick to the middle of the trail, and avoid tall grass. Ticks are usually found in shaded areas, not in direct sunlight, and are fairly close to the ground.

2. Be sure to use insect repellent. Several types contain DEET, and some are designed to be sprayed on clothing.

3. If you've been outdoors, check your body carefully for ticks as soon as possible. Since the ticks are quite small you need to check very carefully.

4. Remove embedded ticks within 48 hours. Ticks need to feed for about that long before they can transmit Lyme disease bacteria, so you have time to remove embedded ticks with fine-tipped tweezers. Grasp the tick's body firmly and as close to your skin as possible, and pull. Then clean the area with an antiseptic. Tick mouthparts remaining in your skin should not transmit the disease.

5. Ask your doctor for a test if you experience any symptoms that are similar to those of Lyme disease. Prompt antibiotic treatment can cure an infection.

6. Consider getting vaccinated if you live in areas where Lyme disease is rampant, or if you work outdoors in tick-infested areas.

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