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Got the Fever for a Trail Run: Dealing with Lyme Disease

by Steve Mann, January ’01

Trail running is one of the best ways of training without the side effects on your body of pounding away on hard concrete. However, as some in our club have found, there can be other, unpleasant, consequences from running where the deer and the antelope play.

That unpleasant consequence is Lyme Disease.

Named after the town of Lyme, Connecticut, LD was discovered in the 1970s after many of the town’s children appeared to have symptoms of arthritis. I came down with it last August. And one of our club’s fastest runners, Rob Magin, came down with it in October from a trail run.

How to Get Lyme Disease

I am not a doctor. This is simply a brief summary of my research, and the experience that I’ve had. You get LD from a tiny deer tick that’s about the size of the head of a pin. You don’t get it from the easy-to-see, roughly quarter-inch common dog tick (which gives you things like Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever instead).

The etiology is simple: Person runs on beautiful wilderness trail. Person brushes against grass or plant (or deer, if you’re really fast) with deer tick on it. Deer tick hitches a ride on said person. Hungry tick bites person and feeds on his/her blood for a while. Tick thanks person by spitting LD bacteria into person. Done. (Deer ticks cannot jump or fly, and do not drop from above onto a passing animal.)

The first symptom is usually a low-grade fever (101-102 degrees) and body aches without any of the standard flu symptoms such as an upset stomach. It is usually combined with a small, two-inch-around rash that continues to grow as the days go on. A majority, but not all, of the victims of LD get the telltale rash. Other symptoms may include a stiff neck, cold sweats at night, and headache.

If left untreated, facial palsy (paralysis), and problems involving joint, nerve, or heart tissue can occur. Some say chronic fatigue syndrome may result if LD is left untreated.

If treated during the fever and rash stage (first 30 days) with three to four weeks of antibiotics, LD is thought to be completely curable. Beyond that stage it may not be curable or may require daily intravenous antibiotics, which even then may not cure the disease.

My Experience

Initially I thought that I was coming down with the flu. After five days with a 102-degree fever and body aches I went to see a doctor. He thought I had a simple virus so he sent me home to take aspirin and rest. The fever kept up for about eight days, then subsided, and was followed by multiple rashes on my body and a very stiff neck (whereupon I got really worried). I went to another doctor who, upon first look at the rashes, told me that I had LD. Because many doctors don’t get to see LD, and misdiagnosis it, my doctor brought a small parade of other doctors and nurses through the examining room to show them what LD, in all its classic glory, looked like.

My doctor put me on antibiotics for three weeks. After a rough first two days, things started to clear up. After one week I felt okay and was able to run the Annapolis 10 miler (at a very slow, easy pace).

How to Avoid Lyme Disease

If you run in the woods, on trails, or in grass fields, always wear tick repellent containing DEET. While running, stay on the trail and avoid brushing against plants, tall grass, or deer. At the end of the run check yourself carefully for tiny, hard-to-see ticks. If you find a tick attached to you, see your doctor.

If you have the LD symptoms my advice is this: Be fairly insistent that your doctor put you on antibiotics right away. If nothing happens, you don’t have LD and the antibiotics can be stopped after a few days. If you start to get better, the antibiotics are working and you probably had LD or some other bacterial infection. Rob Magin took this approach. His doctor didn’t think he had LD, but knowing that there would be no harm in using antibiotics, he put Rob on them. Over the next few days Rob started getting better. When the test results came back they were positive and the antibiotics were already at work.

Vaccines for LD are available, but they are relatively expensive and they aren’t 100 percent effective.

References: I would highly recommend visiting the following two Websites: American Lyme Disease Foundation (http://www.aldf.com) and Pfizer’s Lyme Disease information site (http://www.lymediseaseinformation.com)

You can also call the Montgomery County Lyme Disease Information Hotline at 240-777-1755.

Steve is an MCRRC member and biathlete who often places in biathlon Clydesdale divisions. Feel free to talk to him about LD at the Wednesday night track workout, or phone him at 301-924-5762.