Despite the Foundation’s continued efforts to preserve the Island’s character and keep its properties safe, the deer tick is found island-wide. Deer ticks have been proven to transmit bacterial infections to humans, most notably Lyme disease. The best defense against these tiny but potentially harmful creatures is to thoroughly understand the potential problems that they can cause and how to deal with them.
Ticks are not insects, but crawling, wingless, arachnids, closely related to spiders. At all stages of its life, the deer tick is considerably smaller than the more conspicuous American dog tick. Deer ticks, found in coastal areas from Virginia through Massachusetts, are most abundant along the edges of wooded areas and feed on various animals, including mice, birds, deer, dogs, and occasionally humans.
When you are outside be on the lookout for the tiny deer ticks on your body or clothes. You should also check yourself thoroughly when you get home. It takes time for a tick to attach itself to your skin. Ticks roam, generally migrating upward. Larvae and nymphs live near the ground so check your ankles and legs. Adults are commonly found clinging to plants at about waist height, so carefully examine your waistline, groin area, arms, back, neck, and scalp.
When first bitten by a deer tick, there is usually no pain or reaction. Because of its small size, the deer tick’s presence generally goes undetected. In most cases it bites, draws blood, and drops off. With vigilance and because an infected tick must be attached for 24 to 48 hours to transmit the bacteria, known as a spirochete, only a small percentage of tick bites result in Lyme Disease.
Removing Attached Ticks
The recommended way to remove attached ticks is to use small, pointed tweezers. Grasp, but do not squeeze, the tick where its mouth parts enter the skin and tug gently, but firmly. Sometimes, the barbed mouth parts of the tick will not let go, but be persistent and remove as much of the tick as you can. Place the tick in a container that is marked with the date, the body location of the bite, and where you think you were when the tick climbed onto you. Your doctor may find this information extremely helpful for an accurate diagnosis if symptoms of Lyme Disease appear. After the tick has been removed, disinfect the site of the bite by wiping it thoroughly with rubbing alcohol.
Lyme Disease and Other Tick Borne Diseases
Lyme Disease (named after the town of Lyme, Connecticut, where it was originally reported) is a bacterial infection resulting from the bite of a deer tick. The disease affects both sexes, all age groups, and can be transmitted year-round. It often starts as an expanding ring-like rash and can, if untreated, develop into a chronic disease that includes arthritis and damage to various nerves. When diagnosed early, the disease can be effectively treated with antibiotics.
Indications of Early Lyme Disease
The most common early symptom of the disease is a red rash, appearing at the bite location or as a secondary rash appearing elsewhere. This generally happens about two weeks after the tick has finished feeding and has detached itself. (Surprisingly, only about half of infected individuals ever remember seeing a rash.) As the spirochetes multiply, the rash may develop into a reddish ring about the size of a silver dollar, sometimes expanding to cover an area as wide as the patient’s body with a bull’s-eye-like configuration. It is painless, can feel warm to the touch, and blanches when pressure is applied. If left untreated, the rash may expand for several weeks, and then fade away.
Typically, within a week or two of being bitten by an infected deer tick, Lyme Disease causes mild flu-like symptoms (fatigue, fever, chills, stiff neck, aches and pains, sore throat, or headaches). Individuals who have had a deer tick bite accompanied by a rash or flu symptoms should promptly consult a physician since medical attention during its primary stages can put a quick end to Lyme Disease.
Symptoms of the Advanced Disease
After the illness has become chronic–weeks to several months following the bite–signs of the untreated disease can include problems involving the heart, joints, or nervous system. Also, such symptoms may include dizziness, weakness, and an irregular heartbeat. Nervous system problems are characterized by intermittent headaches, difficulty in concentrating and sleeping, irritability, and poor coordination. Some people develop weakness of facial and other muscles.
If left untreated, symptoms may also include joint pain and swelling. The pain may occur in a single joint (most commonly in the knees), go away after a few days to a few weeks, and reappear elsewhere. During this stage, the disease can be easily misdiagnosed as arthritis. Though movement can be extremely painful, usually any damage done to cartilage or bone is reversible. The disease can be readily treated, even at this stage.
After many years–a decade or more following infection–Lyme Disease can severely damage the brain and other nervous tissues, sometimes mimicking Alzheimer’s disease or Multiple Sclerosis. Recurring episodes of arthritis may result in erosion of the cartilage of the joints of the long bones. Medical treatment this late in the disease is difficult and may not be successful.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Lyme Disease is frequently difficult for physicians to diagnose because its symptoms can occur in such varied combinations. In some people, the tell-tale rash never appears. Other people who do not experience a rash or neurological problems may have joint swelling and pain as their first symptoms. However, with medical research has come the development of a special blood test that identifies antibodies produced by the body’s immune system as it defends against the multiplying spirochetes.
A test is also available to confirm whether or not a tick is carrying the Lyme Disease spirochetes. So if you have the tick that bit you, tell your doctor. Knowing that a person has been bitten by a deer tick, doctors (in areas where Lyme Disease is well-established) may elect to initiate treatment without waiting for laboratory confirmation. In such situations, a doctor’s decision to initiate treatment depends on an examination of the physical evidence, symptoms, and the patient’s recollections.
This microscopic parasite reproduces within the deer tick and is capable of entering the blood stream of any warm-blooded creature bitten by an infected tick – including humans. Once in the blood, the parasite quickly multiplies within red blood cells, causing them to burst. The disease is characterized by malaria-like symptoms, including fevers, sweats, chills, and enlarged liver and spleen, loss of appetite, and an extremely low red blood cell count. Babesiosis is potentially fatal. However, when properly diagnosed by a blood test, it is treatable with medication. Severe cases can require hospitalization and more aggressive treatment.
People who do not have a spleen or have other immunological deficiencies should exercise great caution while on the Island or in any other area where Babesiosis is known to occur.
HE (Human Granulocytic Ehrlichiosis) – is another tick borne disease transmitted by deer ticks. HGE is treatable with antibiotics during its early stages. Initial symptoms can include fever, chills, severe headaches, and confusion. Patients can also have a cough, joint pain, and a rash. Symptomatically, it can mimic leukemia. During later stages, HE can severely weaken the body, making it susceptible to life-threatening complications. Blood tests are able to reveal the presence of HGE which must be promptly diagnosed and treated.