It was a beautiful spring day when a friend and I went fishing on a friend’s farm pond. The fish were uncooperative, but when we arrived back at the truck after walking the wooded trail to our fishing hole, I noticed another creature that appeared eager to bite — a tick crawling up my fishing buddy’s neck.
“There’s nothing good about ticks,” I said as I showed him the little blood-sucking parasite.
“Oh, yes, there is one good thing about them,” he said.
“And what would that be?” I asked.
“They don’t get as big as grizzly bears,” he replied.
We are indeed fortunate that ticks are small because these arachnids are like little vampires. They bite unlucky humans who cross paths with them and then make a meal of their blood. A tick the size of Gentle Ben would certainly be frightening to encounter.
Fortunately, adult ticks aren’t big, usually about the size of a lemon seed. And in most cases, a tick bite is nothing more than an inconvenience. The victim may not even realize a tick has drilled his epidermis until the bug has finished feeding, fallen off and left behind a swollen, itchy bite mark. After a few days, the bite usually disappears, and the victim is little worse for the wear.
This is not always the case, however. Ticks can transmit many serious and sometimes fatal illnesses. Among the most common of these are ehrlichiosis, tularemia, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease. Combined, the species of ticks found in the United States are known to transmit a total of 18 illnesses and counting.
The possibility of dealing with any one of those disorders is enough to convince most outdoor recreationists to take precautions against tick bites. But now, avoiding bites of these nasty little arachnids is more important than ever as victims must worry about two more horrible consequences that could possibly result: a dangerous allergic reaction that appears after eating beef, pork, lamb, venison and other mammalian meats, and a bacterial infection that can produce dementia and other symptoms.
The allergy, known as alpha-gal for a sugar carbohydrate found in the meat, is thought to be caused by an immune response to the bite of a Lone Star tick. The first cases were documented in 2009, and now, doctors are seeing increasing numbers, especially in the southeastern U.S. where Lone Star ticks are most common.
Unfortunately, there are higher-than-expected rates of the allergy in some western and north-central parts of the country as well, a finding that suggests “other species of ticks or possibly human factors, may play a role in allergic reactions to alpha-gal,” said Dr. Stanley Fineman, president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
Three to six hours after eating red meat, the alpha-gal sufferer experiences symptoms such as asthma, sneezing, nausea, hives and headaches. Due to the delayed response, the person afflicted may not associate the symptoms with diet.
“It’s very atypical as food allergies go,” said Fineman. “Most food allergies occur very quickly. And it’s also a bit unusual to see adults develop a food allergy.”
One victim of this illness, a friend of mine who lives in Stuttgart, Arkansas, and who prefers to remain unnamed, told me he and his doctors were, at first, baffled by his allergy attacks, which often occurred in midafternoon or late at night.
“The attacks took place hours after I ate red meat,” he said, “so they didn’t seem to be associated with food. I suffered with them for several years before a doctor who had heard about this tick illness diagnosed me with alpha-gal. It’s almost ruined my life. Imagine if you could never again eat a hamburger or ham sandwich or a venison steak. Any meat that comes from some type of mammal is off limits to me. I pretty much subsist on chicken and fish.”
So far, there’s no treatment or cure for alpha-gal, other than avoiding all mammalian meats. Victims may become wary vegetarians, never again enjoying the taste of many favorite foods.
Another dangerous tick-borne infection was recently discovered by Yale University researchers. In a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the scientists reported that 18 people in New England and New York had contracted the disease — the first time the still unnamed disease has been diagnosed in the United States. It is caused by the bacteria Borrelia miyamotoi, a distant relative of the bacteria causing Lyme disease. The germ is carried by the same ticks (black-legged ticks) that often transmit Lyme disease and is thus likely to be found in the same geographic regions.
“It’s always significant when you find an infectious disease that affects people,” said Peter Krause, senior research scientist at the School of Public Health. “The question is, is this going to be a disease that infects a lot of people?”
Fewer than 60 well-documented cases of B. miyamotoi infection have been reported in the United States to date. But preliminary data show thousands of cases of the illness could be popping up in the United States every year.
Krause found that in a sample of 584 healthy people living in areas where Lyme disease is prevalent, 1 percent had a history of infection by the new disease, while almost 7 percent had a history of Lyme disease. There are 30,000 reported cases of Lyme disease in the United States annually, and this 7-to-1 ratio suggests there are approximately 4,000 annual cases of this other disease, although unreported and asymptomatic cases may raise the actual number of infections tenfold.
Though the B. miyamotoi bacteria was first discovered in ticks nearly two decades ago, scientists did not detect it in humans until 2011, and it wasn’t found in North America until 2016.
“Infections have been occurring under our nose and were being called atypical Lyme disease,” said Sam Telford, senior author of another study on the disease. “No one was looking very hard for B. miyamotoi, and it doesn’t come up in standard Lyme tests. Patients were treated for Lyme, and the drugs worked fine. So why probe any deeper?”
Telford’s study suggests that B. miyamotoi is an “under-recognized cause of disease” in regions in which Lyme disease is prevalent. The study describes an 80-year-old woman who was infected by the bacteria and developed symptoms associated with dementia. It suggests that B. miyamotoi and other poorly characterized germs may contribute to the neurodegeneration typically attributed to dementia or aging. Telford added that there have been some sick patients whose symptoms were attributed to Lyme disease despite testing negative for its bacteria, and researchers will need to explore whether these symptoms were instead caused by B. miyamotoi.
Both diseases cause similar symptoms such as aches and rashes, but the new disease may also cause relapsing fevers. Telford called the disease “yet another reason — although Lyme alone is enough — that we should take every precaution to prevent tick bites and even better, to reduce the environmental contamination with ticks by managing deer herds and habitat.”
Still, Krause said none of the 60 infections encountered so far was untreatable. He noted scientists now need to better characterize the disease’s “health burden” — how frequently the infection occurs and how severe its symptoms are — as well as understand how the infection arises and how to best diagnose and treat it.
Tick Bite Prevention
How can you prevent tick bites? When you’re outdoors, use a DEET or permethrin-based insect repellent. Repellents containing DEET will repel ticks several hours and are safe for use on skin and clothing if you follow label directions and precautions. Permethrin products such as Permanone and Duranon will kill ticks on contact for several days when used to treat clothing, shoes, tents, sleeping bags and chairs, but these products never should be used on the skin. Once again, follow label directions.
When in areas likely to harbor ticks, wear long pants with the cuffs tucked in your socks to prevent ticks from crawling up inside your pant legs. Where ticks are abundant, you might even want to wrap some duct tape around your ankles, over the top of your socks. Keep your shirt tucked into your waistband, too. And wear light-colored clothing that makes it easier to see ticks crawling on you.
When possible, walk in the center of trails and avoid brushing against vegetation or traipsing through leaf litter.
Inspect yourself and your children for ticks after trips outdoors, even in your own yard. Check your pets, too. Use a mirror to view all parts of your body and remove any tick you find. Pay special attention to the armpits, groin, waist, ears, belly button, backs of knees and hair on the scalp.
Should you find a tick that has embedded its mouthparts in the skin, remove it as soon as possible using these tips from the Centers for Disease Control:
- Use fine-tipped tweezers or a notched tick extractor, and protect your fingers with a tissue, paper towel or latex gloves. Avoid removing ticks with bare hands.
- Grasp the tick as close to the skin surface as possible and pull upward with steady, even pressure. Do not twist or jerk the tick; this may cause the mouthparts to break off and remain in the skin.
- After removing the tick, disinfect the bite site and wash your hands with soap and water.
- Do not squeeze, crush or puncture the tick’s body because its fluids may contain infectious organisms. Skin accidentally exposed to tick fluids can be disinfected with iodine scrub, rubbing alcohol or water containing detergents.
- Save the tick for identification in case you become ill. This may help your doctor make an accurate diagnosis. Place the tick in a sealable plastic bag and put it in your freezer.
- Don’t use petroleum jelly, hot matches or other folk remedies as these may cause a tick to release additional saliva or gut contents, increasing chances of infection.
While tick bites can cause problems, those problems are relatively rare. Don’t stop fishing or enjoying other warm-weather activities because you’re fearful of tick bites. Just be sure to protect yourself first and do tick checks after being outdoors. Precautions such as these are important to keep you from being a victim of the many tick-borne illnesses that can change your life.