As the weather warms, nature lovers will head to the trails in Cook County’s forest preserves.
But beware: Ticks carrying a bacteria for Lyme disease may have gotten there first.
The Cook County Department of Public Health has found Lyme-carrying ticks in the southwest suburban forest preserves. Spokeswoman Kitty Loewy says this is a first for Cook County.
"This is not a high-risk situation," Loewy says. "We are not telling people to not go out and visit the forest preserve. We are just saying, like you would with mosquitoes for West Nile season, that you should use some precautions."
Deer ticks, which often are only the size of a head of a pin or a sesame seed, can spread the bacteria after attaching onto the skin of animals and humans.
Cook County was tick-free 15 years ago, but these insects have slowly migrated into the area on the backs of birds and deer, says Jeff Nelson, a North Park University biology professor who conducted a tick study last year for the Cook and DuPage county health departments.
Nelson says ticks usually need to be attached to the skin for at least 24 hours for the bacteria to spread.
Early symptoms of Lyme disease include a "bulls-eye" looking rash, fever, swollen lymph nodes, headache, chills and pain in muscles or joints.
In later stages, Lyme disease can affect the musculoskeletal system, heart and nervous system. In rare cases, the disease can be fatal. It can be treated with antibiotics.
The disease is named after the place believed to be where it was first identified: Lyme, Conn.
Although tick season lasts into the fall, May and June are the insects’ most active months, Nelson says.
To protect yourself and your kids against tick bites, stay in the middle of the trails, use insect repellent containing the chemical DEET, wear light colors to make the dark ticks easier to spot and choose long pants and long-sleeved tops. Always check for ticks after leaving wooded areas.
Loewy says there were two cases of Lyme disease reported in the county last year and two in 2004. "Usually when we see a case of Lyme disease it’s because a person has traveled out of the area, such as up to Michigan where the ticks are much more common," she says.
Amanda Tust, Medill News Service