Expert warns of Lyme disease risk in South Georgia

May 1—TIFTON — As the weather warms and more people venture outside, Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College professor Tony Matthews cautions that Lyme disease remains a concern for those exploring nature in South Georgia.

Matthews, a biology professor who has researched the prevalence of the pathogens that cause Lyme disease and Chagas disease in Southwest Georgia, dispelled the notion that Lyme disease is limited to other parts of the country.

"There's a huge misconception that it's not around here," Matthews said. "And it is. We don't see it as much because we don't have the same types of animals that typically carry that bacteria, and we mostly have longleaf pine forests. But it's here. The problem with Lyme disease is that you can have it and not know it, and if left untreated, the disease can be really devastating."

Matthews said that if the disease is caught early, garden variety antibiotics are effective. But if left untreated, Lyme disease can lead to neurological problems and other serious complications.

"Lyme disease symptoms are very non-specific, mimicking a lot of different things," Matthews said. "Unless you get tested, there's no way to know if you've contracted it. Many individuals with Lyme disease were misdiagnosed with something else, often rheumatoid arthritis, as the disease causes joint pain. However, early symptoms include fever, malaise, swollen lymph nodes, and body aches."

Matthews said that sometimes the effects of Lyme disease can mimic bipolar disorder as well.

"Lyme disease feels like being on fire," he said. "If untreated, it can lead to things like neurological problems where you can have difficulty walking and speaking. There's even some mental issues, such as anger issues called Lyme rage. It's not going to kill you, but it sure is not pleasant."

One of the challenges with Lyme disease is the difficulty in detecting the black-legged deer ticks that carry and spread the bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi. These ticks are small and hard to spot when they bite. Also, the characteristic bullseye rash, which is the first sign of infection, may not always appear.

To minimize the risk of contracting Lyme disease, Matthews advises individuals engaging in outdoor activities to dress appropriately. While he suggests wearing white or light-colored clothing as a deterrent, he knows that hunters may not find this feasible.

"If you're going into the woods, it's important to wear long sleeves and pants," he said. "I tell people to tape up their sleeves to ensure everything is tucked in and ticks can't get into your clothing. I wouldn't raise an alarm about it, but definitely if you're going to do outdoor activities in wooded areas, just be very mindful and check yourself when you come in."

Additionally, he recommends thoroughly checking for ticks upon returning from the woods, as deer ticks in the larval and nymph stages are as tiny as the head of a pencil and can be mistaken for a mole or freckle. He said the bacterium that transmits the disease takes 48 to 72 hours of attachment to transmit, meaning that prompt removal of ticks greatly reduces the risk of infection.

If a tick is found, Matthews recommends removing it with a pair of tweezers or a specialized tick removing tool.

"Make sure that you go right next to the skin with tweezers or that tool and pull very hard," he said. "When they latch on, they're going to stick this thing to your skin that is kind of like cement. It keeps them there and keeps them from falling off. You need to make sure you get as close to the skin as possible because if you rip it, then the mouth parts will stay in your skin."