15 Useful Facts About Lyme Disease

Stringer/Getty Images
Stringer/Getty Images

As summer nears and you spend more time outdoors in one of the many beautiful natural spots in the United States, be sure to dress for the season—tick season, that is. Some experts say 2017 may be an especially tick-infested year. Deer ticks (Ixodes scapularis) carry a bacteria that causes Lyme disease, an infection from a bacterium that coils waiting in their insect bodies. Lyme-carrying deer ticks are especially prevalent in the upper East Coast, the upper Midwest, northern California, and the Oregon coast. While not every tick carries the bacteria that lead to infection—and some carry other pathogens—it’s best to take precautions to prevent bites, and seek medical attention if you have been bitten. The infection can cause long-lasting damage if not treated early. Here are 15 facts you need to know about Lyme disease.

1. LYME DISEASE IS CAUSED BY COILED BACTERIA.

Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, a spirochete, or tightly coiled bacterium that looks like a tiny spring under a microscope. Spirochetes are very simple, slow-replicating bacteria that require a mammalian or avian host to survive. According to Timothy Sellati, chair of the infectious diseases department at Southern Research, a nonprofit research institution in Birmingham, Alabama, “It takes on the order of 18–20 hours for a single spirochete to divide into two.” That’s incredibly slow, compared to other bacteria like E. coli, which can replicate every 20 minutes. Because Borrelia replicates so slowly, and they don’t reach high numbers, “They do not show up easily in a blood test,” Sellati says.

2. TICKS PREFER A LONG MEAL.

Sellati explains that ticks are very different feeders from mosquitoes, which he calls “hit-and-run feeders.” Ticks will feed over a period of three to five days before they become fully engorged. Female ticks generally only take three “blood meals,” he says, in the duration of their lifespan. They take one blood meal after hatching from their egg into the larval stage, another after they molt into their nymphal stage—the stage where they are most likely to bite you—and a final “big meal” in preparation for laying thousands of eggs. Adult male ticks generally don’t feed, he says.

3. THEY ARE A VIRULENT DISEASE VECTOR …

When an infected tick bites a human, the waiting spirochetes—which live essentially dormant in the tick’s gut until environmental cues such as changes in temperature and oxygen availability awaken them—travel from the tick’s gut to its saliva glands. “From the saliva glands they can literally be spat into the bloodstream that the tick is feeding on,” Sellati says. Once they enter the bloodstream, spirochetes travel to various body tissues, because if they stay too long in the bloodstream, they’ll get killed by their host's immune system. “Once it gets away from site of inoculation, it shows a bias toward joints, heart, central nervous system,” Sellati says.

4. … WHICH LEADS TO INFLAMMATION.

“The bacteria has components that are very effective at eliciting an inflammatory response,” Sellati explains. While Borrelia don’t produce toxins like other bacteria, they do incite inflammation in sensitive parts of the body such as the joints, heart, and brain. “That inflammatory response is important to help kill and clear the spirochetes, but it causes collateral damage as well.”

5. INFECTIONS MAY BEGIN WITH A BULL'S-EYE.

The first symptom to look for in about 80 to 90 percent of Lyme cases is a telltale rash of an infected tick bite, called an erythema migrans (EM) rash, which looks a lot like a red bull's-eye, and usually appears at the site of a tick bite within seven to 14 days, according to the American Lyme Disease Foundation. However, the rash does not appear in every instance of Lyme disease, so if you’re bitten, you should visit a doctor immediately. You may also experience flu-like symptoms or joint pains in the first month after the bite.

6. DON'T WAIT TO GET TREATMENT.

If you don't see the tick bite, and don't treat early symptoms, the spirochetes continue to spread throughout your body and can cause more severe symptoms, including fatigue, stiff or aching neck, tingling or numbness in your extremities, and even paralysis of your face. Even more debilitating symptoms of later-stage Lyme disease can include severe headaches, painful arthritis and swelling of joints, cardiac abnormalities, and central nervous system debilitations leading to cognitive disorders.

7. IF CAUGHT EARLY, IT'S USUALLY HIGHLY TREATABLE …

When the disease is caught in its early stages, and treated with antibiotics, it’s curable, Sellati says. Even later stages of the disease can be treated, but the longer an infection goes untreated, the more severe the symptoms and damage can become.

8. … BUT SOME PATIENTS EXPERIENCE SYMPTOMS FOR MUCH LONGER.

Scientists are not entirely sure why a subset of patients have recurrent symptoms of the illness in the months and even years following treatment, known as post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome. “It’s not clear if there is a persistence of live replicating bacteria in some immune privileged niche where they’re protected from exposure to antibiotics,” Sellati says, or if it’s simply the subsequent inflammation stirred up in the body that refuses to go back to normal. “What drives that is not entirely clear.”

9. YOUR GENETICS MAY DICTATE YOUR TREATMENT.

Sellati’s lab has been exploring whether genetics plays a role in who recovers after treatment and who doesn’t. “We have some evidence that your genetic makeup can actually predispose you to developing post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome," Sellati says, and adds it will require more research. They believe they might be able to isolate genetic markers that will tell doctors if antibiotics alone will work, or if the patient might need additional treatment.

10. FEAR THE ENGORGED TICK (BUT DON'T PANIC).

The good news is, even if a tick bites you, if it isn’t yet fully engorged on your blood, chances are good it hasn’t been there long enough to transmit the spirochetes that lead to infection. However, it’s always better to be safe, and pay attention to any symptoms that occur thereafter. “The sooner you can remove a tick from your body, whether it’s feeding or not, the better. If the tick is feeding for less than 24 hours, the likelihood of being infected with Borellia is significantly reduced,” Sellati says.

11. AREAS WITH MICE HAVE MORE LYME DISEASE.

Wherever you find mice and deer you’re very likely to find ticks as well. In fact, Sellati says, mice in all forms—but especially the white-footed mouse—are what infectious researchers call a “maintenance reservoir.” Sellati says. “They maintain the bacteria in the wild so that new ticks can acquire it.” Since spirochetes tend to stay in the bloodstream of mice much longer than they do in humans, that’s how ticks have such an endless supply of the bacteria. “If you got rid of all the mice in the world, you would either come very close to or significantly reduce the population of Borellia in the environment. You’d have a significant decrease in Lyme,” he emphasizes.

12. YOU CAN TAKE SIMPLE STEPS TO PROTECT YOURSELF.

Wear clothes with the most coverage possible. Spray yourself with anti-tick sprays. But no matter what, always do a tick check after you return from the outdoors just to be safe. And if you start to feel any of the symptoms mentioned earlier within a month of a tick bite, don’t wait to visit your doctor.

13. CHECK YOUR CREVICES.

Ticks are not opposed to biting you wherever they can reach, but they have a preference for your warm, moist crevices, such as armpits, backs of the knee, groin, base of the head, and nape of your neck.

14. SKIP SOME OF THOSE "TIPS" FOR REMOVING TICKS THAT YOU'VE HEARD ABOUT.

No matter how many YouTube tutorials you’ve watched, Sellati recommends that you do not use heat, like a match or a lighter, to burn a tick off. The same goes for “goops” such as petroleum jelly, alcohol, or hand sanitizer. Since the spirochetes are transmitted through tick saliva, Sellati warns, “If you try to do those things, you’re only going to piss the tick off, and a pissed-off tick spits a lot, and you're more likely to get more bacteria into your bloodstream.”

15. INSTEAD, USE SLOW, STEADY PRESSURE—AND SOME TWEEZERS.

Take a small pair of forceps or tweezers, Sellati instructs, and gently grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible, “then pull the tick straight up slowly, which pulls the mouth part out of the skin, and then just dab the area with alcohol to disinfect.” A tick’s mouthparts are like tiny barbed hooks, designed to pierce the skin and stay there. “Then they have secretions that cement the mouthparts to the skin, because they have to feed over a long time and they don’t want to be knocked off while they sit and sip.”

Does the Full Moon Really Make People Act Crazy?

iStock.com/voraorn
iStock.com/voraorn

Along with Mercury in retrograde, the full moon is a pretty popular scapegoat for bad luck and bizarre behavior. Encounter someone acting strangely? Blame it on the lunar phases! It's said that crime rates increase and emergency rooms are much busier during the full moon (though a 2004 study debunked this claim). Plus, there's that whole werewolf thing. Why would this be? The reasoning is that the Moon, which affects the ocean's tides, probably exerts a similar effect on us, because the human body is made mostly of water.

This belief that the Moon influences behavior is so widely held—reportedly, even 80 percent of nurses and 64 percent of doctors think it's true, according to a 1987 paper published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine [PDF]—that in 2012 a team of researchers at Université Laval's School of Psychology in Canada decided to find out if mental illness and the phases of the Moon are linked [PDF].

To test the theory, the researchers evaluated 771 patients who visited emergency rooms at two hospitals in Montreal between March 2005 and April 2008. The patients chosen complained of chest pains, which doctors could not determine a medical cause for the pains. Many of the patients suffered from panic attacks, anxiety and mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts.

When the researchers compared the time of the visits to the phases of the Moon, they found that there was no link between the incidence of psychological problems and the four lunar phases, with one exception—in the last lunar quarter, anxiety disorders were 32 percent less frequent. "This may be coincidental or due to factors we did not take into account," Dr. Geneviève Belleville, who directed the team of researchers, said. "But one thing is certain: we observed no full-moon or new-moon effect on psychological problems."

So rest easy (or maybe not): If people seem to act crazy during the full Moon, their behavior is likely pretty similar during the rest of the lunar cycle as well.

This story was updated in 2019.

NASA Reveals How Living in Space for a Year Affected Scott Kelly’s Poop

NASA, Getty Images
NASA, Getty Images

When you agree to be part of a yearlong space study, you forfeit some right to privacy. In astronaut Scott Kelly’s case, the changes his body endured while spending a year at the International Space Station (ISS) were carefully analyzed by NASA, then published in a scientific journal for all to see. Kelly submitted blood samples, saliva samples, and cheek swabs. Even his poop was subjected to scrutiny.

As PBS reports, Scott Kelly’s fecal samples revealed that his gut microbiome underwent significant but reversible changes during his time in orbit. In what was surely good news for both Kelly and NASA, his gut bacteria didn’t contain anything “alarming or scary,” according to geneticist Martha Hotz Vitaterna, and it returned to normal within six months of landing on Earth.

Even after being subjected to the challenging conditions of space, “Scott’s microbiome still looked like Scott’s microbiome, just with a space twist on it,” said Vitaterna, who was one of the study’s authors.

The fecal probe was one small part of a sweeping NASA study that was just published in the journal Science, more than three years after Kelly’s return. Dubbed the Twins Study, it hinged on the results of Kelly’s tests being compared with those of his identical twin, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, who remained on Earth as the control subject.

NASA’s goal was to gain insight into the hazards that astronauts could face on proposed long-term missions to the Moon and Mars. The agency has gone to great lengths to get this information, including offering to pay people $18,500 to stay in bed for two months in order to replicate the conditions of anti-gravity.

It also explains why NASA was willing to launch unmanned rockets into space to collect samples of Kelly’s poop. On four different occasions at the ISS, Kelly used cotton swabs to pick up poo particles. When the rockets arrived to drop off lab supplies, they returned to Earth with little tubes containing the swabs, which had to be frozen until all of the samples were collected. The process was tedious, and on one occasion, one of the SpaceX rockets exploded shortly after it launched in 2015.

The study also found that his telomeres, the caps at the ends of chromosomes, had lengthened in space, likely due to regular exercise and a proper diet, according to NASA. But when Kelly returned to Earth, they began to shorten and return to their pre-spaceflight length. Shorter telomeres have a correlation with aging and age-related diseases. “Although average telomere length, global gene expression, and microbiome changes returned to near preflight levels within six months after return to Earth, increased numbers of short telomeres were observed and expression of some genes was still disrupted,” researchers wrote.

Researchers say more studies will be needed before they send the first human to Mars. Check out NASA's video below to learn more about what they discovered.

[h/t PBS]

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