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THE CHANCE of being bitten by a deer tick here is infinitesimal, but the tiny, itching bump on my finger gave me a moment's panic.

Adult deer ticks are about the size of a pencil point and the larval stage, supposedly the more infectious, is smaller yet.

So for the last 10 miles of the daily commute, that increasing itch caused increasing worry.

Last year, 31 cases of Lyme disease were confirmed here in Western New York -- a shocking figure because the tiny insect that carries this dangerous infection never has been found locally, despite the best efforts of State Health Department seekers.

Lyme disease is a serious problem from Long Island to Albany and along the East Coast. Serious enough that the State Legislature recently threw a lot of money at this growing menace: $250,000 for the Tick Borne Disease Institute, $500,000 for a control program on Long Island, $83,000 to make the state's doctors more aware of the disease.

Lyme can be treated with a broad-spectrum antibiotic.

But go untreated -- or get the wrong treatment -- and you could suffer nerve damage, heart damage, arthritis and a host of other problems.

"And it's easy to be wrongly diagnosed," says Dr. Edward Bosler, a Health Department researcher who first isolated the germ that causes the illness. "Lyme disease is called the 'Great Mimic' because it seems like so many other diseases."

Having written often about Lyme (and possessing a well-honed sense of hypochondria), I was fully prepared to insist that my doctor start treatment had the little bump turned out to be an insect bite.

He got a break when the magnifying glass showed the itch to be caused by nothing more dangerous than an ingrown hair.

However, it is "insect time" again and a lot of people do forget that bites, itches and even insect-borne diseases can be prevented -- rather than cured.

For example, a pal headed for Lake Placid asked about black fly. Better known as the "scourge of the North," these devils don't merely bite, they chomp -- often taking small pieces of epidermis with them as they are shooed away. Black fly can both define and ruin the "Adirondack Experience" right into July.

"Take some good repellent," I urged. "Keep your sleeves rolled down and wear long pants."

In the days when smoking was not considered hazardous, I'd have suggested he smoke a cigar or pipe, too, for these portable smudge pots will help keep bugs away from your face.

Repellent is better for your lungs, though. It's more convenient to carry and you don't need matches to get it to work.

A chemical compound, called "DEET" for short, is the most effective stuff known today.

Preparations like Ben's 100 or Muskol have 100 percent concentrations of this compound; others carry lesser amounts.

Cutter's rub-on stick, containing 30 percent DEET, has worked well for my family. Pump bottles or towelettes of Deep Woods Off! also are very convenient. I stress pump bottles -- not aerosol sprays -- because of the danger to the ozone layer caused by some aerosol propellants.

In black fly or tick country, I prefer the 100 percent DEET liquids.

A few drops on cuffs, collar and hat, and a bandanna around your neck, stays effective longer than if put directly onto your skin. Doing this also may prevent the skin reaction a few people get from DEET.

Those sensitive of skin (or the nostalgic) might like Natrapel, a lotion or spray that contains 10 percent citronella, the "miracle repellent" that was the best stuff around from the 1920s until DEET came along. I've found more frequent applications are needed than with DEET preparations, and that Natrapel seems to work better on some people than it does on others.

Natrapel is made by the Tender Corp., which also markets "After Bite," which comes in an applicator like a marking pen. This stops the itch, if you do get bitten.

If you are bitten and even suspect a deer tick, a little hypochondria may not be bad insurance.

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