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Lyme disease is a caused a bacteria that is spread to humans by tick bites. While most tick bites are harmless, several species can cause life-threatening diseases.

Minnesota health officials are warning about Lyme-infected tick bites that attack the heart and cause sudden cardiac death, after a man recently fell ill. Steve Stolz said that he noticed his heart was beating at a slower pace while walking up a hill. He went to the emergency room where doctors determined a tick bite disturbed the electrical system of his heart.

Lyme disease heart complications are usually referred to as Lyme Carditis. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reports that only one percent of patients with Lyme disease will develop Lyme carditis, it is important to be aware of the dangers. The bacteria from the bite burrows into the heart muscle, which causes the electrical signals that keep the heart beating to short circuit. This can cause the heart to slow to a stop or develop a potentially fatal fast rhythm. The good news is that the condition can be treated with antibiotics or a temporary pace maker. “Once you give the antibiotics the bacteria die, the inflammation goes away and it does not come back,” said Dr. Alex Campbell of the Minneapolis Heart Institute. “There’s no permanent effects on the heart.”

Lyme disease is a year-round problem, although April through October is considered tick season, with an estimated 300,000 people affected, annually. Most people are infected through the bites of immature ticks called nymphs. Nymphs are approximately the size of a sesame seed. They attach to the body and stay attached for 3 to 5 days. Because they are so tiny and the bite is painless, many people do not even realize they have even been bitten. Adult ticks are approximately 3 – 5 millimeters and are more likely to be discovered and removed before they have had time to transmit the bacteria. Once a tick has attached, if undisturbed it may feed for several days. The longer it stays attached, the more likely it will transmit the Lyme and other pathogens into your bloodstream.

Factors that can increase the risk for contracting Lyme disease include:

  • Working or spending time outdoors in areas where the black-legged deer tick or Western black-legged deer tick is found.
  • Having pets that can bring the ticks into the home.

Lyme disease is difficult to diagnose because symptoms are not consistent and may mimic other conditions such as the flu. While the primary symptom is a red rash mimicking hives, eczema, poison ivy, or a bulls eye, it may not be present in up to 20% of cases. Symptoms can also disappear and return weeks later.

Complications of untreated early-stage disease include:

  • Joint disease
  • Neurologic disease
  • Heart inflammation
  • Frequent hospitalizations to manage the disease

Some of these complications result in chronic, debilitating conditions.

Because now is prime time for ticks, health officials stress the need to protect yourself.

  • Avoid wooded and bushy areas with high grass and leaf litter. Walk in the center of trails.
  • Keep your grass mowed and leaves raked.
  • Dress appropriately by wearing light-colored clothing, long-sleeved shirts, long pants with legs tucked in socks and closed-toe shoes.
  • Look for ticks often on especially behind the knees, between fingers and toes, and on underarms. Other areas where ticks are commonly found: belly button, neck, hairline, top of the head, and in and behind the ears. Visually check all other areas of the body, and run fingers gently over skin.
  • Consider using repellents. Products with DEET repel ticks, but don’t kill them. Products that have Permethrin do kill ticks. But they should be sprayed only on clothing, not on your skin.
  • Take a hot soapy shower after all outdoor activities, especially after a hike in the woods.
  • Check pets, children, and gear for ticks.
  • Tumble clothes in a dryer on high heat for an hour to kill remaining ticks.

What should you do if you find a tick?

  • Use a pair of fine-tipped tweezers to remove the tick. Grab the tick firmly by its mouth or head as close to your skin as possible.
  • Pull up slowly and steadily without twisting until it lets go. Don’t twist or squeeze the tick. This can cause the mouth-parts to break off and remain in the skin.
  • Do not handle the tick with bare hands.
  • Save the tick. Place it in a plastic container or bag so it can be tested for disease, if needed.
  • Wash the bite area well with soap and water and put an antiseptic lotion or cream on the site.
  • Call your health care provider to find out about follow-up care and testing of the tick for the Lyme disease bacteria.

Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.

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