Tick Tock

A female Lone Star Tick (Amblyomma americanum), an aggressive and common species thoughout the southeastern United States, waiting for her next victim. Photo courtesy of the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of Vector Borne Infectious Diseases.

Ah, spring time. The birds are singing, the flowers are blooming — and this week, I found a tick biting my leg. The first tick of the year is a phenological milestone no less significant than the first ruby-throated hummingbird or the first daffodil, but much less enjoyable for the observer. It’s one thing to study the life cycles of animals – another when you inadvertently become a part of one. Still, it has its own rituals no less significant and important than putting away the winter clothe, getting out the camping gear, or spotting your first migrant birds.

In my case, I fetched the tweezers and the bottle of isopropyl alcohol from the medicine cabinet, and, in a maneuver in which I have become extraordinarily well-practiced, extricated the tick off my body with the tweezers. I took especial care to remove its mouthparts, still gripping a tiny chunk of my skin in its jaws. After noting the species and gender of the tick for my records (as well as the time, location and any other relevant observations),  I watched the tick wriggle and squirm in my tweezers, clearly aware that something had gone wrong with its plan to suck my blood, but not entirely sure what to do about it. Then, in a cathartic and admittedly macabre release, I flushed said tick down the toilet and sterilized the tweezers and my leg with the alcohol. Just another day in the woods – or in the field, or in the yard or wherever I happened to pick up this unwanted stowaway in the first place.

In general, I abhor cruelty to animals, but ticks seem to bring out the worst in me. It doesn’t help that ticks are stubborn little beasts that are remarkably difficult to kill. Unlike mosquitoes or roaches, they are not easy to crush, and exposing myself to the contents of their insides is the last thing I want to do. Usually, I send them to their death via the municipal sewer system, but at times I have opted for more creative forms of execution: matches, nail polish, duct tape, sealing them in jars and watching them crawl around for days before succumbing. On one memorable occasion, I put a tick into a vial full of alcohol, thinking to preserve it as a research specimen. It took three days for the tick to drown, swimming circular laps in the alcohol the entire time. I ought to feel bad about this, but it proves my point: ticks are tough. Besides, they started it.

If ticks were just aggressive, blood-sucking parasites, that would be bad enough. But they are also the carriers for virulent and unpleasant bacterial diseases little studied by modern science. Lyme disease is the most famous of the lot, but it’s far from the only hazard. Different species of ticks carry less well-known but alarmingly prevalent infections with names that would work well in a genre thriller: babesiosis, 364D rickettsios, Powassan disease, tularemia. Some have no common name, and are known by the binomial Latin of their bacterial instigator, like Borellia miyamotoi, which is a mouthful to announce in social situations. Then there are those diseases whose names attempt to summarize their unpleasant symptoms: Rocky Mountain spotted fever (which is different, mind you, from Colorado tick fever), tickborne relapsing fever, Southern tick-associated rash illness (or STARI for short) and tick paralysis. The least deadly but perhaps most disturbing is the alpha-gal allergy, where a person can develop a reaction to proteins found in mammal tissue, effectively making them unable to eat red meat without the risk of anaphylactic shock. Often overlooked by doctors and frequently undiagnosed for years, tick-borne diseases, whether sudden or slow in their onset, can seriously mess you up.

You can see, then, why I show no mercy to any tick that bites me. Thankfully, most ticks don’t carry infectious diseases, but if I happen to be bitten by one that does, I want to make sure I take it down with me. It seems only fitting, somehow.

There are so many different tick-borne illnesses that it’s difficult for medical professionals, let alone laypeople, to keep track of them all. When my father called me from Massachusetts a few years ago, informing me he’d been diagnosed with ehrlichiosis after he staggered off the Appalachian Trail with a high fever, I was stunned by the diagnosis of a disease I’d never heard of before. “You’re making this up, right?” Turns out, I was just behind the times.

Happily for my father, and for most cases of tick-borne illnesses, the treatment is simple and straightforward. Commonly available antibiotics like doxycycline, applied in an aggressive two-week regime, destroy the bacteria responsible and cure the disease. The key is knowing to get treatment and having a doctor make the appropriate call. In my father’s case, his symptoms were prompt and straightforward and the Massachusetts urgent care doctors were familiar with the disease. It’s not always so easy to get a diagnosis, though, and many people suffer for years without treatment. But taking antibiotics indiscriminately for diseases you might not have isn’t a good idea either. So what’s a nature lover to do?

Like so much in life, prevention is the best way to avoid problems – but that’s easier said than done in a world where the tick population is exploding and you spend most of your time outdoors in prime tick habitat. So one of the rituals of spring is that I start checking myself over every day to make sure I don’t have any unwanted baggage after time in the field – or even a trip to the mailbox. It takes less than a minute, but sometimes I get complacent and forget to start in the spring after a winter of slacking off indoors. Then the next tick-bite teaches me to step up my game, and I get back on track.

A few days after I removed the tick from my leg, the bite site is red and swollen, itching uncontrollably. Happily, though, it doesn’t look as though I have any disease this time. I was bitten by a lone star tick (see photo above), an aggressive, common species in the region, with notoriously irritating saliva – an insult to injury, sure, but not a crippling one. It’s a reminder to me while I’m watching for warblers to keep an eye out for what else might be lurking about – and a reminder that my spring time appearance is an important part of their own yearly rituals of renewal.

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