Most people know that you can get Lyme disease from ticks, but very few people know what type of ticks, and the percentage chance you have of contracting the disease if you’re unlucky enough to get bitten. In recent years, Lyme was thought to have been a totally North Eastern phenomenon, incapable of spreading outside key states like Connecticut (where it was first diagnosed and discovered in 1975), Maine, Vermont, and New York. In 2018, however, Lyme can be found in every state in mainland U.S., and constitutes one of the fastest-growing vector-borne diseases on the planet. Education is one of the best weapons we have in the battle against Lyme disease; using that as a jumping-off point, the first thing you should know is which type of ticks carry the Lyme virus.
Hastened by global warming, which allows ticks to migrate further and live longer, Lyme disease is now on the brink of being a global epidemic. Its spread is further compounded by the fact that not many doctors know what they’re talking about when it comes to chronic Lyme, as the disease hasn’t been legitimized by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, Lyme can only be contracted one way: via ticks. The bacteria is transferred to the host’s system when the tick embeds itself in the skin, though the transmission is not instantaneous. Ticks cannot fly or jump; the host has to physically make contact with the tick for the latter to attach itself. This usually happens in rural areas, in tall grass or woodland, and it’s why extra care must be taken when hiking or walking outdoors, especially in the summer months.
There are two types of tick that transmit Lyme in the U.S.: the black-legged tick (Ixodes scapularis), or deer tick as it’s sometimes known, in the northeastern and upper midwestern parts of the country, and the western black-legged tick (Ixodes pacificus) along the Pacific coast. These are two different species of the same tick, the only kind in the country that carries Lyme. Although these might sound like encouraging statistics, there are millions of these deer ticks to avoid, and they’ve spread all over the country. They are also living much longer thanks to global warming, extending tick season from the summer months to include spring, fall, and even winter in some areas. Deer ticks can now survive in areas where falling temperatures mean they previously would have frozen to death.
However, it’s important to remember that not every deer tick in the country is a carrier of Lyme bacteria. Furthermore, if you notice the tick early enough and remove it, you’re not likely to contract the disease, even if the tick is carrying it. Once they attach themselves to a human body, ticks will often migrate to hard-to-see areas such as the groin, armpit, or scalp. The tick’s saliva contains a paralyzing agent, which means that their presence will often go unfelt if they are not physically spotted by the host, making detection and removal a challenge.
The initial symptoms of Lyme disease are much like the flu, and can constitute fever, aches, pains, fatigue, and headache. Symptoms can vary in severity and might not even be that debilitating at all. Patients may also present with a bullseye rash, a distinctive feature of Lyme disease, which is a surefire sign to see a doctor as soon as possible. Unfortunately, a lot of the time this rash is either not present or goes unseen by the patient, while the other symptoms are written off as flu. By this point, the tick will have dropped off the host, but the crucial window for acute Lyme treatment is fading rapidly. If left unchecked, the disease will entrench itself in the human body and progress to its chronic stage, where treatment and diagnosis is a much harder prospect.
The easiest way to deal with Lyme is at its source – by identifying areas that might present the threat of tick bites, and being aware of the dangers therein. Remember, Lyme disease is a totally treatable condition if it’s caught early enough; the problems start when the tick bites are missed and the condition turns chronic. When exploring the possibility of Lyme, even chronic Lyme, most doctors will ask a patient if they remember coming into contact with a tick. Depending on the Lyme-literacy of the doctor, the answer a patient gives to that question might just inform the rest of their treatment plan. So it’s very important to be tick-conscious, not just in traditional Lyme states, but anywhere rural in the U.S. Once you keep these dangers in mind, Lyme disease shouldn’t pose much of a threat to you – but it’s important to remember that different species of tick can’t be differentiated by sight, so it’s best to keep an eye out for each and every little critter you can, in case one of them is a Lyme-carrying deer tick.