Spring brings outdoor activities, health hazards

March 28, 2012

By Europe Regional Medical Command

HEIDELBERG, Germany -- Spring is here and people are heading outdoors to enjoy the balmy weather.  But such harmless activities as taking a walk through the woods or cleaning out the attic could put you at risk for some pretty serious medical issues if you’re not cautious.

A walk in the woods exposes the hiker to ticks which can carry both Lyme disease and tick-borne encephalitis, while dust stirred up from that spring cleaning job can contain dried rodent droppings that can cause hantavirus in humans.  All three diseases are common to Germany and, in some areas like Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, are prevalent, but all can be prevented with some simple precautions. 

Lyme disease is caused by bacteria, while tick-borne encephalitis is caused by a virus, both of which live in ticks and can be transmitted when the tick bites a host. 

The earliest symptom of Lyme disease is a rash that looks like a bullseye at the site of the tick bite, and can progress to flu-like symptoms including muscle soreness, headache, fever and malaise.  Early treatment with antibiotics can usually cure the disease, but left untreated it can cause persistent chronic problems and physical disability.

Tick-borne encephalitis can affect the central nervous system and causes symptoms similar to Lyme disease – headache, fatigue and muscle pain.  In the event the virus does affect the central nervous system, paralysis can occur and hospitalization might be required. 

In the case of tick-borne diseases, the best offense is a good defense.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends minimizing areas of exposed skin by wearing long-sleeved shirts, long pants, boots, and hats. Tucking in shirts, tucking pants into socks, and wearing closed shoes instead of sandals may reduce risk. Repellents or insecticides, such as those that contain DEET, can be applied to clothing and gear for added protection.

You should also check yourself, your loved ones and your pets for ticks after a trek through the outdoors.  If you have been bitten, you should remove the tick carefully as soon as you discover it by using a pair a tweezers to remove it as close to the skin as possible.  Avoid squeezing the tick or removing the head while removing the tick.

Hantavirus is carried by rodents – the Red Bank Vole in Germany – and is usually spread through contact with their urine and excrement.  In most cases, people are infected when they stir up dust in areas that are frequented by the rodents and breathe in the dried particles of those droppings.

Patients infected with the strain of Hantavirus common to Germany may suffer from the abrupt onset of fever and flu-like symptoms, followed by abdominal pain and, in some severe cases, kidney failure.  In 2010, more than 1,500 cases of hantavirus infection were reported across Germany, with the majority reported in Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria.

Preventing hantavirus begins with keeping rodents away from your home, garage or campsite.  Cleaning up spilled food to avoid attracting rodents and sealing holes that could allow them into your house or garage are a good start.  When you start your spring cleaning in areas that are dusty (e.g. attics, garages and basements), wet down or wet mop the area first to avoid disturbing any dust that contain dried rodent droppings and wear a filter mask to avoid breathing in any particles while cleaning.

Springtime in Europe offers opportunities to get out and see the countryside.  By taking a few simple precautions, you can ensure your outdoor experiences are safe ones.

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