Illness can be spread through the air, physical contact, ingestion of contaminated substances, and many other methods. A less common but exceptionally sinister mode of disease transference is through the bite of a tick.
Although ticks are best known for the transmission of Lyme disease, they may also disseminate other illness. Knowing more about these small creatures, how they transfer disease to humans, and having a basic understanding of Lyme disease can help you better protect yourself against tick-borne illness.
What Are Ticks?
Ticks are small and, in some cases, nearly imperceptible creatures that belong to the arachnid family. These spider-like creatures have an estimated lifespan of about three years. However, depending on the specific type of tick, their life expectancy may be longer or shorter. During their lifetime, ticks move through four stages: egg, larva, nymph, and adult. Beginning as early as the larva stage, ticks suck blood form other animals to sustain themselves. Typical tick targets include rodents, birds, and deer. However, they may also attach to and feed on humans.
There are hundreds of tick varieties but the majority of the tick population in the United States appears to be dominated by just three species. The midwestern and eastern United States are home to the Ixodes scapularis, more commonly referred to as the deer tick. The southern states host Amblyomma americanum, or lone star tick. And on the West Coast, Ixodes pacificus, also known as the western black-legged tick, is the leading species.
Most often, ticks are found in wilderness environments, such as wooded grassy areas, in underbrush, or in fallen leaves. Fully grown ticks tend to lie in wait among tall grasses and bushes. Typically, adult ticks feed and mate on larger animals that frequent such locations. Common hosts include deer, dogs, and horses. Less-developed ticks in the nymph or larva stage usually take refuge in leaves or under trees. As such, adolescent ticks often feed on smaller ground-dwelling animals such as squirrels, mice, lizards, and occasionally birds.
How Ticks Transfer Disease
Ticks are common carriers of various bacteria, viruses, and infectious substances. However, ticks do not enter the world already carrying these pathogens. To become a carrier of Lyme or any other disease, ticks must first feed on an already infected animal. When a tick feeds on another creature it ingests bacteria and other potentially infectious substances found in the host’s bloodstream. Therefore, any bloodborne pathogen carried by the host can be easily transferred to the tick and subsequently spread to future hosts.
Certain characteristics make ticks particular adept at spreading disease. The frequency in which ticks change hosts allows them to effectively collect and spread many types of illness. Furthermore, tick saliva suppresses immune function, which aids in the transmission of bacteria into the hosts bloodstream. Pathogens introduced to the bloodstream by tick bite may travel to virtually any system in the host body. Therefore, tick-borne illness may have a broad impact affecting multiple areas of health and bodily function.
The speed at which Lyme and other disease is transferred from tick to host is debated. The CDC believes that the tick must be attached for a minimum of 24 hours to transmit infectious material. However, some studies show that ticks in the nymph stage are capable of transmitting Lyme bacteria in less than 24 hours. One study showed that Lyme was transmitted from tick to host in under six hours. Regardless of the rate of transference, the longer a tick is attached the greater the risk of disease being transmitted to the host.
Ticks Living in the Lyme Light
Lyme disease is an infection of a spiral-shaped bacteria (spirochete) called Borrelia burgdorferi. This long-lasting and exceptionally evasive condition is sometimes described as “the great imitator” because of the wide array of symptoms it may present. Some of the possible symptoms of Lyme disease include muscle and joint pain, nerve damage, fatigue, and flu-like symptoms. Perhaps the most indicative symptom of Lyme is a bulls-eye rash that may form around the initial tick bite, however, fewer than 50% of those infected will get the rash or recall being bit.
Lyme disease is also recognized as a prominent contributor to other forms of chronic illness including chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and others. Those suffering from Lyme tend to experience multiple chronic illnesses at the same time. This can make diagnose challenging and allow Lyme to go undiagnosed and untreated for an extended period.
Studies show that Lyme in humans is caused primarily by nymphal ticks. It is believed that due to their incredibly small size and the fact that their bite that causes little to no pain, nymphal ticks tend to go unnoticed for extended periods. This delayed recognition provides more time for disease to be transmitted to the host. In contrast, adult ticks are more easily seen and removed. Because of this, adult ticks typically remain attached to humans for a shorter period of time thereby reducing the risk of pathogens entering the bloodstream.
Despite ticks being the most common cause of Lyme in humans these bugs are not the source of the disease. Rather, ticks are simply the carriers of Lyme. In fact, ticks are incapable of spreading Lyme unless they have previously fed on an animal already infected with Borrelia burgdorferi. Only after feeding on an infected host do ticks have the potential of spread Lyme to future hosts. Therefore, humans bitten by ticks are not guaranteed to suffer from Lyme or other tick-borne disease. However, if a tick bite is identified it is important that thorough testing be done to ensure that pathogens were not transferred.
Raise Awareness of Ticks to Slow the Spread of Lyme
Ticks are small creatures have the ability to spread Lyme and other infectious disease through one small bite. If the appropriate tick prevention and safety practices are not put in place, your risk of acquiring Lyme and other illness may increase significantly. Protect yourself and others by sharing what you have learned about the spread of Lyme and other disease through ticks.
To learn even more about Lyme disease, and the proper diagnosis and treatment, download our FREE “Treating Lyme Disease” e-book!
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