Guard against Lyme disease this summer

By: Kevin Bunch | C&G Newspapers | Published June 24, 2015

 The nymph stage of the blacklegged tick’s life cycle is most prevalent during the midsummer.

The nymph stage of the blacklegged tick’s life cycle is most prevalent during the midsummer.

Photo provided by Scott Bauer, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Bugwood.org

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METRO DETROIT — Tick bites can have long-lasting consequences.


A specific species of the bloodsucking arachnid, the blacklegged tick — also known as the deer tick — can spread Lyme disease, a bacterial infection that, if left untreated, can cause issues for months or years after the initial bite.


According to Macomb County Health Department Director Bill Ridella, Lyme disease is caused by a “spirochete bacteria.” That bacteria is spread by the blacklegged tick. No other species of tick in this area is known to spread the disease.


Ridella said the blacklegged tick is found in 43 states, most prominently in the eastern part of the country in areas including New England and the Mid-Atlantic states.

In Michigan, Ridella said, the tick is found primarily on the western side of the state, from Berrien County up to the Straits of Mackinac.


“It’s important to know the areas at highest risk of Lyme disease so that if you’re outdoors in those areas, you take the proper protection,” Ridella said.


Howard Russell, an entomologist with Michigan State University, said the tick’s range has been expanding eastward over time, with small numbers found as far east as Genesee County. He said it was likely that the blacklegged tick is already in southeast Michigan in small numbers, along with the much more common dog tick.


The dog tick is physically different from the blacklegged tick due to having white markings on its back. The blacklegged tick, in contrast, is all black. There are other differentiations between the blacklegged tick and other species, but Russell said those require a trained eye and possibly a microscope.


There are repellants on the market that can discourage ticks from biting. Russell said products with DEET are somewhat effective, but dedicated tick repellants containing permethrin are more effective.


“It is applied to clothes, and once it dries, it remains effective for weeks,” Russell said. “Beyond that, it would be doing thorough and complete tick inspections of yourself, the kids, spouse, anybody who has been out in that area.”


Inspections can be difficult. While adult ticks are readily visible, the larval and nymph life stages are much smaller. Russell said a nymph-stage tick is the most likely to spread Lyme disease, but it is only about the size of a pinhead. They can be found anywhere on the body.


He added that not every tick bite necessarily will spread Lyme disease.


Michigan Department of Community Health and Human Services spokeswoman Jennifer Smith said ticks do tend to be found on the head, on the back of the neck, under the arms and behind the knees.


If a tick is found, Russell said, a pair of tweezers is the best way to remove it: Gently grip it near the head and pull it straight out. While some claim that a hot shower can help dislodge a tick a couple of hours after it has gotten to a person, Russell said it is unlikely to do much due to the tick’s barbed mouthparts.


“If you can remove it within 48 hours of it attaching, you greatly reduce your chances of getting Lyme disease,” he said.


Russell suggested that people be mindful of the symptoms of Lyme disease. While only about half of all people infected get a rash that looks like a “bull’s-eye,” he said victims also could display flu-like symptoms including aching muscles, headaches, fever and a stiff neck. These can emerge after a few weeks to a month of initial infection.


Smith said people should visit a doctor if they show any of those symptoms or facial paralysis within 30 days of being bitten. There is no cure for the disease, but she said there are treatments to help with the symptoms.


According to information from the Centers for Disease Control, about 60 percent of patients with untreated infections can have intermittent bouts of arthritis with joint swelling and pain, particularly in the knees. Additional neurological problems can result if the disease goes untreated in roughly 5 percent of those infected. Another 10-20 percent may have lingering symptoms even after treatment.


“There’s definitely treatment available,” Smith said. “It’s important to get diagnosed as early as possible.”


If someone thinks they may be infected, Russell suggested getting medical attention quickly, as it is much easier to treat the disease earlier than later.


While there are other diseases spread by ticks in Michigan, Lyme disease is the most prevalent. Russell said there have been 500 cases of Lyme disease reported in the state since 2009, while rocky mountain spotted fever — spread by dog ticks — had 17 reported cases in that time.


Anyone interested in getting a tick identified can contact Russell at bugman@msu.edu. He said that if someone can send a photo or the tick itself, he can identify it.

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