A tick bite may seem harmless enough, but it can give a person Lyme disease, the most common tick-borne disease in the U.S. and a dangerous disease if untreated. Lyme disease can be particularly difficult to diagnose in California because it’s unexpected, delaying essential treatment. May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month, and as more people enjoying the outdoors will be coming into contact with ticks, it’s a good time to learn about this often overlooked disease.
In California, western black-legged ticks can carry bacteria known as Borrelia burgdorferi. When a bacteria-laden tick bites a person, bacteria can be transmitted and give the person Lyme disease. In some California areas, the number of ticks carrying B. burgdorferi “can be up to 10 percent,” although it’s often much lower, explained Professor Cherie Briggs at the University of California, Santa Barbara, whose group studies Lyme disease in California.
“In California, we have the ticks, we have the bacteria, and we have some species of hosts that are really good at transmitting it,” said Briggs. But Californians have a factor that may be making infections less common: lizards. Lizards host 90 percent of Californian ticks. They’re so important to tick survival, Briggs and collaborators reported in a recent study published by the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, that when lizards were removed from an area, there were far fewer ticks the next year. And all those lizards “are really cool because not only do they never transmit Lyme disease, but they’re also cleansing the ticks of Lyme disease. It is pretty unusual.” When bitten, they actually kill the B. burgdorferi bacteria in the ticks.
Unfortunately, people don’t have the lizards’ immune systems. In people, the first symptom of Lyme disease, following a usually painless bite, is often a small spot that develops into a larger circular rash. Additional symptoms include fever, lethargy, aches, and, if left untreated, severe arthritis, neurological abnormalities, heart complications, and other chronic medical problems.
Because of its many symptoms, Lyme disease can be mistaken for other diseases, especially in California where doctors “don’t consider it to be a problem,” said Briggs. Additionally, available diagnostic tests are unreliable for early infections. The independent film Under Our Skin, which screened at the Lobero Theatre this month, portrays undiagnosed and misdiagnosed patients.
If an infection is caught early, it can be treated with antibiotics for a few weeks, but patients left untreated can be harder to treat, and treatments are hotly debated. The International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society supports long-term use of antibiotics, but according to the Infectious Diseases Society of America, which sets treatment guidelines, this doesn’t benefit patients and can be potentially fatal—not to mention that “long-term antibiotic use is a good way to develop antibiotic-resistant other things,” said Briggs.
When wandering in forested or grassy areas, to prevent Lyme-infested tick bites, try wearing light-colored long sleeves and long pants tucked into long socks. Insect repellents can also be used. Lyme-transmitting ticks can easily be overlooked because they’re about the size of a poppy seed. “One of the more risky behaviors is sitting on logs,” said Briggs. Luckily, ticks are usually attached for more than 48 hours before they transmit Lyme disease, so it pays to take a moment to make sure you haven’t brought any Lyme-bearing ticks home on your person.
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