I loved japanese monster movies as a kid, watching titanic lizards and insects stomp scale models of Tokyo. Doctors are biology nerds at heart, and find depictions of biology-gone-haywire entertaining. So you’ll understand my thrill at an American Academy of Pediatrics conference where we learned why there’s few Lyme disease cases in Louisiana.
Lyme disease is transmitted by deer ticks. Lyme bacteria is carried in deer and mice, tick feeds on those, and then when biting humans, regurgitate the bacteria into the human. Infection starts with a target-shaped rash at the bite site: a central red spot surrounded by a red ring. If untreated Lyme can infect joints and even the brain. So why don’t we see Lyme in the South? It turns out that while ticks in the North feed on mice and deer, ticks in the South feed on…..LIZARDS! COOL! Talk about monster movies in miniature!
While lizards have proteins in their blood that kill Lyme, humans have to worry about Lyme and other tick-borne infections. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Erlichiosis, and Tularemia are just a few of the tick-borne infections. Now that it’s a warm and lovely spring and we want to be outdoors with blooming flowers and trees, ticks are blooming too.
Ticks live in bushes, dead leaves, and tall grass, so hiking, hunting, camping, and gardening are perfect activities for ticks to hitch a ride as we brush past. To prevent this, wear clothing treated with 0.5% permethrin, or spray clothes yourself. Ticks climb upwards, under pant cuffs, so tuck those cuffs into socks or boots to keep them off your skin. You can put certain sprays on your skin, but some you can’t put on kids under 3 years-old, and none on babies under 2 months.
Soon after being outside, shower to not only wash off sweat and dirt, but wash off ticks. While doing so, inspect for ticks that have already started to burrow into skin. Ticks love to hide- in hair, behind knees and ears, in armpits and belly buttons, under waist bands, and way up between legs. Check those places carefully.
Let’s continue our theme of minature monster movies, starring ticks and lizards. When we discussed ticks feeding on lizards and humans, what exactly does that mean? Well, horror-movie fans, it means they suck your blood! How they do that has been unknown, until 5 years ago when german scientists caught the act on film. Go to Smithsonian.com to watch that mini-monster movie.
Ticks have two specialized harpoons on their heads called chelicerae (pronounced Kale-y-Siri). These harpoons are covered with barbs like fish hooks, so as they plunge into your skin, the barbs lock in. After about 30 thrusts of these weapons, the tick’s deep enough to deploy another barbed spear called the hypostome. This thrusts down between the chelicerae to open a big enough path for blood to flow up to it’s mouth.
About this time we discover the tick on our kid, head buried, body sticking out. After experiencing a profound case of the creeps, it’s time to act. If the tick can’t be brushed off, it means those barbed spears are stuck in. Your grandparents’ methods of removing ticks won’t work. Smearing them with butter to suffocate them so they’ll run away- myth. Touching them with a hot match-head- kills them, but they don’t release. Painting them with toxins like nail polish or gasoline- same result. They die, but die before they can extricate themselves.
Tweezers are the best way to remove ticks. Grasp the tick by its head, up against the skin, and pull gently but firmly. If the tick breaks and the head’s still embedded, you can pick it out with a sewing needle and tweezers, like a splinter. The good news is that you don’t have to turn your kid into hamburger to extract every last fleck of tick parts. The chelicerae and hypostome don’t carry disease, and the skin will extrude those with time.
More good news. If you catch the tick before it’s engorged, it won’t have transmitted disease. Ticks only regurgitate infections after a blood meal. They need to get full of blood before refluxing blood and infection from the rear of their bodies down into you. So if the tick isn’t swollen, it’s cool as far as worrying about Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. The monster loses!