Tick Tock

A t first, Hamdenite Lisa Maloney thought she had tendonitis in her wrists. But when the pain spread to her right knee and then her ankle, she realized something was terribly wrong. The ultimate diagnosis: Lyme disease. That was just the first of Maloney’s four bouts with the deer tick-borne illness that continues to plague so many Connecticut residents.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says about 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported each year, but their research suggests the actual number of diagnosed cases nationwide is closer to 10 times that number. 95% of the reported cases come from 14 states, including all of New England. “You’ll meet a lot of people in Connecticut who’ve had it more than once,” Maloney says.

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She traces her second bout with Lyme to a tick she found in her ear after putting her bike helmet on the ground, which she says she’ll “never do again.” The third infection she traces to her own backyard and the fourth to a tick she found on her wrist. She doesn’t know where she picked up that one. By then, Maloney was 10 years older than she’d been the first time around, and her recovery took longer. “I felt like I had the flu for two months,” she says.

The classic symptoms of Lyme disease include those Maloney experienced—dizziness, headache, neck ache, joint aches—as well as fever, chills, sweats, fatigue and nausea, according to Dr. Theodore Andreadis, director of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (CAES) in New Haven. Some people find a bullseye rash at the site of the tick bite as well, but Maloney never did. As she reports, the symptoms are a lot like the flu, but “it’s unusual to have those kinds of symptoms in the summertime,” Andreadis says. In other words, if you feel like you have the flu, consider Lyme disease.

Summer isn’t the only time when patients are diagnosed with Lyme disease, but from May to July we may be particularly vulnerable, Andreadis says. Now is when tick nymphs are active. Adults, about the size of a poppyseed, can often be spotted on clothing, skin and pets, but nymphs are so tiny their presence may easily go undetected. They’re “about the size of a pin head, and often times people don’t even realize they’ve been bitten,” he says.

By now, you’re probably familiar with the standard preventive advice: If you’ve been out in the weeds or the woods, take off your clothes as soon as you get home and “check yourself very closely,” Andreadis says. Whenever possible, wear long pants, long sleeves and socks, preferably in light colors, and use insect repellent. Clothing is now available with repellent pre-applied.

According to the CAES, Lyme transmission occurs 24 hours or more after an infected tick latches on, so it’s crucial to check often and remove any ticks immediately, ideally using “thin-tipped tweezers or forceps.” The longer an infected tick is attached, the more likely the disease will be transmitted. Showering within two hours after tick exposure has been found to be helpful.

Tricia Dowcett-Bettencourt, a mountain biking friend of Maloney’s, has also ridden out a case of Lyme disease. She won’t go in the woods now without a long-sleeved shirt, a hat and something around her neck, and she always showers as soon as she gets home. “Over the years, I’ve pulled off a number of ticks,” she says.

Outdoor enthusiasts like Maloney and Dowcett-Bettencourt may be especially vulnerable to infection, but simply residing in more rural areas makes you more vulnerable to Lyme disease. In 2017 the Connecticut Department of Public Health reported 15 confirmed and probable cases of Lyme disease in New Haven, or 11.6 cases per 100,000 people. The rates per 100,000 were much higher in some nearby towns, including Cheshire (82.0), Woodbridge (100.1) and Bethany (179.8).

Andreadis expects this year to be “fairly typical” in terms of the tick population. That means CAES researchers will test about 70 ticks submitted by local health departments and the general public every day for a good part of the summer, but Dr. Goudarz Molaei, who runs the tick testing program, says he has seen as many as 120 ticks in one day. This time of year, the population peak of tick nymphs overlaps with the spring peak of adult ticks (they’ll peak again in the fall), causing the lab to see about equal submissions of both.

Some creative measures are in the works at CAES that may combat the alarming rates of infection. For example, researchers are trying out feeding stations for deer—large structures with basins of grain or corn below and rollers above that deliver pesticides to the ears and necks of the deer when they push their heads through to feed. Scientists are working on other “novel integrated methods” of tick control as well, Andreadis says, including a vaccine targeting rodents that’s delivered via “bait boxes” and the elimination of invasive Japanese barberry, a favorite habitat of mice and ticks.

That’s the good news. The bad news: according to CAES research, 38.1% of all ticks tested last year were positive for the bacterium that causes Lyme disease and/or the disease agents of two other tick-borne diseases: anaplasmosis and babesiosis. That’s enough to scare many of us out of the woods. After her fourth battle with Lyme, Maloney was feeling that way, too. But her doctor reminded her that many patients have never stepped foot or biked on a woodland trail.

“Don’t stop living your life,” Maloney advises. But take precautions. Dowcett-Bettencourt agrees: “I do still go out and do what I do, but I’m a lot more careful about protecting myself.” And again, if you do get bitten, act quickly, because the clock may be ticking.

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 depicts a tick in a Petri dish at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. Image 2 depicts tick-testing vials at the CAES.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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