First in a series

By M.E. Jones

Correspondent

This is a scary story. But it is also a true story that can't be told too often.

To begin with, Lyme disease is real and ticks that carry it are always among us.

Unlike mosquitoes, black flies and other bugs that plague us during the warm seasons, adult ticks don't die off or go underground when the weather gets cold.

In the depths of a frigid New England winter, when everything in nature seems on hold until spring, these tiny insects are still out there, awaiting the next thaw.

Some ticks -- the deer tick, for example -- are so small they are almost invisible in the wild. Even up close a deer tick might look more like a speck of soot than a living, mobile creature that poses health risks to humans many times its size.

Ticks can be disease carriers, transmitting serious illnesses such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease.

Lyme disease is more common in the Northern United States, including New England, which has a large deer population.

Both diseases are transferred to humans via bites from infected ticks.

A toxic tick bite is often signaled by a bull's eye rash and/or itching at the site, where the tick might also have burrowed under the skin of its human host, absorbing blood and swelling like a pin-sized balloon in the process.


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Lyme Disease

Named for the Connecticut community where it was discovered in the 1970s, Lyme disease at the onset can cause rash and fever. Long-term complications can include acute or chronic illness, disabling pain and other serious conditions.

Once denied as real, Lyme disease is now recognized as a global epidemic.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention keeps a tally of reported cases in the United States. In Massachusetts, statistics show, reported cases of Lyme disease over the past decade ranged from 1,532 in 2003 to 3,396 confirmed cases in 2012.

Ticks are always with us

Throughout the cold months, ticks survive in a dormant, cold storage state. Requiring virtually no sustenance while wintering over outdoors, they cling like camouflaged warts to tall grass and bushes, logs in the woodpile, tree branches and fallen leaves. They become active whenever the temperature rises above freezing.

Once it hops on board its host, an adult tick's sole purpose is to stick around long enough to ingest a blood meal, which it needs to survive and reproduce.

Indoors, ticks that hitched a ride on clothing or an animal's fur can drop off and stay alive for at least 24 hours.

Once they find a household host to attach to, the little beasties can scurry over, crawl on and dig in, silently burrowing under the skin.

Say a husband, slumbering unaware beside his wife, has bussed in a tick that hasn't attached yet. It might choose his skin or hers to dig into.

Either way, the tiny tick will swell like a balloon as it ingests blood, becoming visible and easily identified with a magnifying glass.

Repulsed by the notion that a tick has gotten under our skin and eager to extract it, we might be tempted to pluck or scratch it out with tweezers or finger nails.

That would be unwise and we should resist the impulse.

Embedded ticks tend to hang on for dear life, so it's best to use a special tick removal tool to get the invasive insect completely out, dead or alive.

Usually, it's the latter, since the idea is to remove the tick without dismembering it; body parts left under the skin can cause infection.

To recap, ticks are not just creepy crawlies we avoid out of aversion; they are parasites that can carry diseases and make us sick. They are, in short, dangerous.

Once upon a time there was a Lyme disease vaccine, according to CDC, but the manufacturer quit production in 2003, citing insufficient consumer demand and a vaccination received before 2002 is probably no longer effective.

The best defense now is reducing exposure to ticks. 

We must therefore be vigilant.

Unless the temperature is 32 degrees or below, experts advise doing tick-checks in all seasons on ourselves, our kids and pets after spending time outdoors, whether it's a walk in the woods or working in our own back yards.

That was the gist of a public service message an organization called LymeLITE was disseminating in the Nashoba region a few years ago, when a now-decade-old documentary film called "Under Our Skin" was still making the rounds and a series called "LymeLITE aired on local Cable TV stations.

Be on the lookout

During an unseasonably warm spell in the winter of 2011, Lyme disease awareness advocate Kurt Hayes e-mailed a cautionary message that read, in part: "After being outside dragging branches, chopping wood and doing outdoor clean-up around our yard, it's not uncommon that I'm finding one or more unattached ticks on my clothing when I come in."

"So, please be diligent!" he advised.

"Be aware that we are in the tick's environment just as the adults are out looking for their blood meal," said Hayes.

Hayes, whose dedication to the cause stemmed from a brush with Lyme disease in his family, took the film documentary on the road and conducted presentations in area communities, bringing along folks with stories to tell.

At a stop in Shirley a few years ago, a woman from a neighboring town shared her harrowing experience.

Her teenage daughter contracted Lyme disease, the woman said, but the diagnosis came only after a frightening and frustrating struggle.

Failing to pinpoint the source of the girl's symptoms, including exhaustion, inability to concentrate in school and pain so severe it impeded walking, doctors suggested psychological rather than physical causes.

Thanks to her own persistent advocacy and finally, a doctor who listened without bias and responded appropriately, the woman said her daughter finally received treatment she needed to get well, a long-term course of antibiotics.

The doctor risked sanctions, the woman said, since the treatment he prescribed was considered questionable, even unsound at the time.

The mainstream medical community strongly opposed it, perhaps in part because the existence of Lyme disease was not widely accepted.

Physicians rarely diagnosed it; those who did typically limited antibiotic treatment to the standard 10 days.

Today, Lyme disease is still elusive but doctors don't doubt it's out there.

There are Lyme disease specialists now and long-term antibiotic therapy is often recommended for late stage cases.