black legged tick, california, lyme disease
A tick gets ready for a meal. From Deep Look video via YouTube

Watch the video at the bottom of this post about how ticks dig into a warm-blooded host. I’m already afraid of ticks and it scared me. I hope it scares you.

People who aren’t afraid of Lyme Disease baffle me. I once talked to a deer guide with a large bull’s-eye rash on his arm who said he had no intention of going to the doctor because “I feel fine.”

Good luck with that, brother. I have two good friends with chronic Lyme Disease. Neither expects ever to be cured. The best they can do is manage the symptoms. Both have been greatly diminished by the disease. They have nerve damage, chronic fatigue, various degrees of brain fog—which manifests as an inability to concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time or to remember things they once did with ease. They have joint problems. They’ve changed their diets, curtailed their activities, spent thousands on doctors, drugs, and tests. Lyme can also lead to meningitis and heart rhythm irregularities. I’ve got enough problems, thanks.

I’ve been reading about Lyme Disease for years. My conclusion? What we don’t know dwarfs what we do. The malady was only formally named in 1975. Prior to that, it was thought to be a form of juvenile arthritis. The name, incidentally, comes from Old Lyme, Connecticut, where the initial diagnosis of it as a separate disease was made.

Everyone seems to agree that if it’s caught early, it’s curable with antibiotics. If you get the bull’s-eye rash, you’re lucky, because it’s apparently a sure sign of Lyme infection. Most infected people don’t get it. Many only know they were bitten after other symptoms shows up. The tests for Lyme are notoriously unreliable. This is because what they measure is the antibodies created in response to the disease. The problem is twofold. These can take a while to build up to detectable levels. Then, when the body realises they aren’t killing the invader, it stops producing them. Unless you get lucky with the timing of the test, false negatives are common. You can, apparently, also test positive and not have the disease.

The debate about how long a tick has to be attached to infect you rages on. At one point, the Center for Disease Control said that “in most cases,” the period was 36 to 48 hours. “Most” is not particularly reassuring. I’ve read accounts where deer ticks passed Lyme bacteria to mice in as little as 6 hours.

Another scary thing is that, according to the American Lyme Disease Foundation, ticks transmit the greatest number of infections when in their smallest stage—the larva, when a tick measures all of 2 mm, or the size of a poppy seed.

Okay, now that you’re good and scared, what can you do?

  1. Wear long sleeves, long pants, a hat, and gloves. Tuck your pants into your socks.

  2. Use an insect repellent with at least 20 percent DEET. Better yet, consider treating your duds with permethrin. (You can’t put it on your skin.)

  3. Check yourself and whoever’s with you after being outdoors. Ticks especially like areas where your skin is warm and/or thin: the groin area, armpits, the inner thighs, behind your ears, etc.

  4. Take a shower and scrub yourself with a washcloth to dislodge ticks.

  5. Washing your clothes doesn’t kill ticks. You need a thorough cycle in a hot dryer to do that.

  6. Never burn or coat a tick with petroleum jelly. Instead, remove it by grasping as close to the skin as possible and pulling gently but deliberately straight out. You may not get every bit of the tick, but that gets the parts you need to worry about the most.

  7. Call your doctor.

Here’s the video: