The Search for Ticks
Because some ticks in the Bay Area carry bacteria that can cause Lyme and other diseases, it is important that families understand the risks and symptoms of Lyme disease, as well as ways to prevent ticks from biting. During the past several years, experts have observed the spread of ticks carrying Lyme disease to areas where it has not previously been seen, and estimates of the number of people diagnosed each year have grown.
To help understand the spread of Lyme to different geographic areas, the Bay Area Lyme Foundation is offering free tick testing nationwide, and hopes to use this data to gain a greater understanding of the geography of tick-borne diseases in the U.S.
Linda Giampa, executive director of the Bay Area Lyme Foundation, answered questions from Bay Area Parent about why tick testing is so important and also offers tips parents need to know before enjoying the outdoors with their children.
Why has the Bay Area Lyme Foundation decided to do free tick testing?
A major challenge for the Lyme disease community is understanding the prevalence of Lyme disease bacteria in ticks throughout the U.S., so that physicians and residents can be appropriately vigilant to the symptoms of the disease. Sending the ticks that you find to our scientific researchers allows them to gather data about ticks from this area. We are hoping to put together a scientific study with ticks sent in by people from all over the U.S. With this effort, the Foundation aims to make it easier for people who have been bitten by ticks, particularly in geographic areas where Lyme disease is not yet recognized as endemic, to understand their potential risk.
What regions in the Bay Area are most affected by ticks carrying Lyme?
Ticks that carry Lyme disease on the West Coast – the Western blacklegged tick – have been found in all but 3 of the 58 counties in California. We also know that ticks testing positive for the bacteria have been found in 42 out of California’s 58 counties – and that infection rates vary significantly from location to location. The important thing for families to know is that they should take preventative measures whenever they are in wooded areas, chaparral and grasslands, and know the symptoms of Lyme disease.
Are there certain times of year when ticks are most prevalent?
In our area, tick season is year-round due to the temperate climate. Adults come out in the fall through winter, while the smaller nymphs (no bigger than a poppy seed) emerge in the spring and summer months.
What special precautions should families take in terms of clothing/equipment when hiking?
Wear light-colored clothes, as it will be easier to see ticks, and cover up as much as possible. For example, wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants tucked into socks and a hat (and tuck in your hair). Consider DEET for skin and permethrin for your clothes. A single application of permethrin to your clothing can provide up to six weeks of protection, even after repeated washings. You can also buy clothes that have already been treated with Permethrin. Lemon Eucalyptus Oil is believed to repel ticks and several all-natural organic sprays now exist on the market.
When you are hiking, walk in the middle of trails and avoid sitting on logs or leaf litter, or leaning on trees. Check all your gear when you return home. Ticks can come into your house on pets, coats, daypacks and camping gear.
What should parents look for after being outdoors with their child?
It’s important to do a tick check – and check clothing and gear, too. Check common places to which ticks might latch on – under the arms, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, behind the knees, between the legs, around the waist and especially in the hair. A warm shower immediately after spending time outdoors will wash away ticks, particularly in hard-to-reach areas, that have not yet latched on. Clothes should also be washed in hot water and/or placed in a hot dryer for one hour. Redo tick checks three days after being outdoors. If you've missed any ticks the first time around and they've had a chance to feed on you, they will be bigger and easier to spot.
If a parent finds a tick on themselves or their child, what is the best course of action?
Don’t panic. It’s important to remove the tick properly. Use tweezers between the skin and the tick's mouth to gently tug the tick straight up from the skin. If you yank it out, the tick’s mouth could remain and so could the bacteria which causes Lyme disease.
It may take two or three tries. You may want to store the tick in the freezer to have it tested, especially if you or your child develop Lyme symptoms. It is important to watch for symptoms. If caught early, most cases can be treated, but it is commonly misdiagnosed due to lack of awareness and unreliable diagnostic tests.
In fact, the current "gold standard" diagnostic for Lyme disease misses up to 60 percent of cases of early stage Lyme disease. If not treated promptly, Lyme may progress to a debilitating stage that becomes difficult, or impossible, to cure, and, in some cases, has proven fatal.
What are the symptoms of Lyme disease?
Symptoms of the first stage of Lyme disease include headaches, flu-like symptoms, joint pain, fatigue and sometimes a rash that has many different shapes – one of which may look like a bull's-eye centered on the tick bite. Not everyone gets a rash, or you may get a rash but not see it.
Lyme disease typically has three stages, and symptoms progressively worsen with each stage. The disease becomes more and more difficult to treat. People with late stage Lyme suffer for years with symptoms that can include partial paralysis; severe joint pain; neurological problems; severe headaches; problems with memory, hearing, and vision; inflammation of the brain and inflammation of the heart.
Why might the symptoms of Lyme disease vary from person to person?
Ticks often carry more than one version of the bacteria that causes Lyme disease and may also carry other bacteria, viruses and parasites. These separate infections, contracted with the same tick bite, may cause symptoms to vary from person to person, cause challenges with diagnosis and impact which treatments are effective in eradicating infections. In a recent study funded by the Bay Area Lyme Foundation, it was found that a greater diversity of bacteria than expected were found in ticks in the Bay Area, which may help explain why Lyme disease symptoms vary widely among Bay Area patients.
Where can we learn more?
Visit our website at www.bayarealyme.org to find out more about ticks, disease prevention, symptoms and the challenges of current diagnostics and treatments.