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The Clock Is Ticking: Spring Forward for Lyme Disease

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Female Black-Legged Tick: Courtesy of San Diego County Government

Female Black-Legged Tick: Courtesy of San Diego County Government

Every Spring, my wife exhibits bouts of delusional parasitosis. She starts to feel itchy. She imagines insects crawling over her skin. She demands immediate inspection of hard to reach parts of her body and she subjects our children to rigorous head-to-toe inspections at bedtime.

Her symptoms are brought on not by any of the typical causes of delusional parasitosis. She has no psychological disorder such as schizophrenia or clinical depression. It is not menopause or skin allergies. She does not obsessively clean her skin.

She simply finds a deer tick.

It might be on her sleeve, on one of the kids or the dog, but it appears to have miraculous powers beyond the normal reach of Ixodes scapularis, commoonly known as the black-legged deer tick. She itches long after the tick has been disposed of in a thimbleful of Scotch.

Nymph, male and female deer ticks.  Courtesy of Oxford Veterinary Hospital

Nymph, male and female deer ticks. Courtesy of Oxford Veterinary Hospital

Such is the power of suggestion that a nymph tick, which is no larger than a poppy seed, induces not only my wife but millions of people up and down the east coast and throughout the mid-west into similar bouts of delusional parasitosis. Truly a tick that could!

For those unfortunates who are not delusional and who actually suffer from a tick bite, they too are in good company. An estimated 4.3 million people contracted Lyme Disease in 2011 which probably means that at least ten times that number encountered a deer tick and removed it prior to infection.

The changing face as a deer tick engorges. Courtesy of www.tickinfo.com

The changing face as a deer tick engorges. Courtesy of www.tickinfo.com

It is a serious problem not least because Lyme Disease is, at best, temporarily debilitating and at worst, ruinous to your health. My wife has contracted it twice, happily with short term symptoms, but many horror stories abound. Katy Reid, who testified at a Connecticut Senate panel on Lyme Disease suffered for eleven years with Lyme disease. Symptoms are manifold and take up two pages on the Lyme Disease Association’s website.

In terms of distribution, the North-East is prime Lyme country as the reported cases indicate in the table below:

These are the ‘woodland states’ with dense populations of white-footed mice and deer, where the black-legged ticks make it their home for two to three years. Be especially careful in brushy areas, where leaf litter abounds and in tall grasses.

Embedded Deer Tick: Courtesy of Socal Trail Riders

Embedded Deer Tick: Courtesy of Socal Trail Riders

In their three year life span, deer ticks have only three blood meals. In year 1, they hatch into larvae and take their first blood meal off a mouse, deer or small bird. They then go dormant until the following Spring. In their second year, they evolve into nymph ticks and take their second blood meal anytime between May-early July. These are the ticks that usually cause Lyme Disease, largely because they are so small and hard to see. You will find that a standard stereo microscope is helpful in this regard while a magnifying glass is also helpful in removing them, effectively. Nymphs prefer warm, moist areas such as the groin, armpit or hair and they look like a freckle, which does not help in identification. The good news is that they require 36-48 hours to infect you so with adequate checks during Spring, you can remove them in time.

By the fall of Year 2, they have grown into adult ticks. Males will attach but they do not feed for long. As a result, they rarely transmit the bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi. It is the females that are the problem. Larger than the males and red or orange colored, they feed for several days and can increase in weight by up to 100 times. During this long feeding, the bacterium has ample time to infect your blood, which is why it is so important to remove a tick as soon as possible. In the first 24 hours, she is really only at the aperitif stage so it is unusual for infections to occur in that time span.

Courtesy of Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation

Courtesy of Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation

Spring, therefore, is a critical time for tick checks. Most of us in the North-East are a bit confused by Spring this year. It snowed last week. However, my wife is under no illusion about the imminent reawakening of ticks in the garden and our body inspections will start soon. Over the years, she has removed at least 3-4 ticks annually off the four of us and one year, I stopped counting after picking no less than fifty eight ticks off a Wheaton Terrier. I am certain that her inspections have helped limit us to delusional parasitosis although in spite of my best efforts, the dog in question contracted Lyme Disease.

It makes me itch just thinking about it and while you too may suffer from delusional parasitosis this Spring, do not delude yourself more than necessary. Spring is here and, so to speak, the clock is ticking!

Charles Crookenden About the Author: Charles Crookenden is President of Microscope.com, an internet retailer of microscopes, based in rural Virginia. Microscope.com sponsors a training course at the annual EAS beekeepers’ conference. Follow on Twitter @intheloupe.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 5 Comments

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  1. 1. methos1999 11:56 am 04/9/2013

    Thanks for the informative article. We went on a walk yesterday in the woods and found 3 ticks on our dog (none on us). Fortunately two had not yet attached themselves to the pup, and the third we had initially missed (confusing it for a scab from a cat scratch), but removed after only a couple hours. Makes us thankful the dog is part greyhound and has short white fur – so easy to spot!

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  2. 2. vagnry 2:36 pm 04/9/2013

    Lymes disease can be bad enough, but in Europe, we have TBE, Tick-Borne Encephalitis, which is far, far worse.
    I don’t know if you have it in the US, for your sake I hope not.

    Basically, TBE can cause meningitis, it can’t be cured after symptoms show, so it can be lethal, paralysing etc, but it is possible to be inoculated and become immune.

    My wife, my children, and I are inoculated, as a day in the garden of our summer cabin is sure to get us a pretty collection of ticks.

    My wife got Lyme’s disease once, but the red ring was a tell-tale sign, she had antibiotics, no problem.

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  3. 3. JSmith707 9:43 am 04/10/2013

    This is very odd. The author used the term “delusional parasitosis” four times in this short article. Once, could be dismissed as a joke. But four times? One has to ask, does he think it is reasonable for people to be careful about contracting tick-borne diseases? Or is he suggesting that taking preventative measures for oneself and one’s children is a sign of borderline insanity? 

    No amount of actual information, which the article also provides, can compensate for repeatedly suggesting that people who do routine tick checks are “crazy”. Most people, even educated people, are more likely to respond to this threat of ridicule, than to the dry facts, which suggest that tick bites are indeed a danger to be avoided. 

    I wonder if he would suggest that washing one’s hands during flu season is “obsessive compulsive disorder”, or that wearing a helmet while biking is nurturing a “culture of fear”. Some people make these arguments, but I don’t think Scientific American is the place for them. 

    At some point, ridiculing safety measures becomes the same as encouraging people to be careless. At a high-profile venue like Scientific American, this article crosses the line. It is simply irresponsible. 

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  4. 4. Alex59 5:39 pm 04/10/2013

    The tragedy is that the Lyme epidemic is unnecessary. The wise residents of places like Monhegan Island ME, Mumford Cove CT, and Great Island MA ended their epidemics by removing the deer. Deer removal is effective because 95% of tick eggs come from ticks on deer. The adult egg-laying deer tick requires a sizeable mammal to feed on and cannot feed on a mouse, for instance. It is estimated that ticks from just one deer can produce up to a million tick eggs per season. In fact, the deer epidemic caused the Lyme epidemic. In 1930 there were 300,000 deer in the US. Today there are 30 million. Deer have infiltrated our yards and neighborhoods where they are protected by a powerful pro-deer lobby. The deer tick infects us not only with Lyme disease, which can cause crippling arthritis and brain damage, but with at least four other diseases, including babesiosis and anaplasmosis, both of which can be fatal. The group at highest risk for Lyme disease is the children. There has never been a Lyme epidemic in the absence of deer.

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  5. 5. NativeLaw 10:26 pm 04/11/2013

    I agree with J Smith that the tongue in cheek phrase “delusional parasitosis” is inappropriate in this article which attempts to impart some factual information, then undermines it with such phrasing. Dealing with lyme disease really isn’t funny. Ask the hundreds of thousands of people who are sick. I didn’t think it was funny when my mother lost her left eye, completely shriveled, due to Lyme in 1982 when no one knew what she had, and it affected her entire body. Alan Steere was called in and even he couldn’t help by then, it was too late. Also, the offer of “reassurance” about a tick taking 24-36 hours to transmit infection has been proven false. It depends upon where in the tick’s body the spirochete is at the time of the bite. If it is already in the saliva it will take nowhere near that amount of time. Lyme infection has been found in at least one instance to transmit to a human body as soon as 20 minutes after a bite begins.

    More science, please, and less silliness.

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