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The Clock Is Ticking: Spring Forward for Lyme Disease

Scientific American
The Clock Is Ticking: Spring Forward for Lyme Disease
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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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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