Tick Tock

Tick Tock

At 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) say about 63,000 new cases of Lyme disease were reported in 2022 (the latest year for which data has been published), but they estimate the actual number of diagnoses nationwide was closer to half a million. 95% of reported cases came 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 noted. She traced her second bout with Lyme to a tick she found in her ear after putting her bike helmet on the ground, which she said she’ll “never do again.” The third infection she traced to her own backyard and the fourth to a tick she found on her wrist, source unknown. 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 said.

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 emeritus 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 said. In other words, if you feel like you have the flu, consider Lyme disease.

Patients are diagnosed with Lyme disease all year, but cases spike from May to August, peaking in June and July. Summer, Andreadis said, is when deer 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 can 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 said.

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 said. Whenever possible, wear long pants, long sleeves and socks, preferably in light colors; use insect repellent; and avoid walking through tall grass and brush.

According to current CAES guidance, Lyme transmission can occur as early as 40 hours after an infected tick latches on, so it’s crucial to check often and remove any ticks immediately, “grip the mouthparts (hard parts of the tick closest to the attachment site) with a pair of fine tweezers and pull forcefully to dislodge the tick.” (Other sources also explicitly warn against gripping the soft body of the tick, which may force disease agents into your own body.) The longer an infected tick is attached, the more likely the disease will be transmitted. Showering within two hours after possible 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 told me 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 said. Outdoor enthusiasts like Maloney and Dowcett-Bettencourt are especially vulnerable to infection, but simply residing in more rural areas appears to increase the odds, with rates of confirmed and probable cases typically noticeably lower in urban and suburban towns.

At the busiest time of year, CAES researchers typically test several dozen ticks submitted by local health departments and the general public every day, but Dr. Goudarz Molaei, who runs the tick testing lab, said he has seen as many as 120 ticks in one day. In early summer, the population peak of nymphs overlaps with the spring peak of adults (they’ll peak again in the fall).

Annual reports spanning 2013 to 2022 indicate that anywhere from 27% to 38% of ticks the CAES examined came back positive for the bacterium that causes Lyme disease (as did significant percentages carrying the 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 advised. But do take precautions. Dowcett-Bettencourt agreed: “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 features tick-testing vials at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. This updated story was originally published on June 15, 2018.

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