NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Tick Talk

One of the best things about Minnesota is the stuff that we don’t need to worry about — volcanoes and earthquakes, say, or cold-blooded predators anxious to eat us — alligators, pythons, sharks.

We can usually count on our snug midcontinent home to keep us relatively safe from the Hysteria of the Day. We can afford to take a good many popular panics in stride. But as we don flip flops and head for the lakes or parklands, here’s one cold-blooded interloper that’s worth more than a second thought.

Do you feel a tickly … something … crawling up your leg?

Picture an almost alien life form — an otherworldly eight-legged faceless invader whose only goal in life is to drink your blood. And not only is it searching for a tasty donor to dine on — it could leave behind a couple of lingering tips your grandmother never heard of: Lyme disease, first identified in 1976 in Connecticut, and this year’s brand-new cause for panic; the less common but deadlier Powassan virus, named for a town in Ontario.

We’re heading into the biggest year yet for the black-legged deer tick, and it has Minnesota and eastern North Dakota squarely in its sights — or would, if only it had eyes. Though newly hatched tick toddlers are no bigger than a poppy seed right now, the growing Class of 2017 presents outsize threat has the state departments of health on red alert.

The tiny invaders have been making their way west from the Great Lakes since about 2000, when they were first identified in Minnesota. Here on the west margin of the state, Clay and Wilkin counties (as well as Cass in North Dakota) are still considered at moderate risk. To our east, including all of lakes country, the threat is at red alert.

The Minnesota Department of Health estimates some 1,500 children and adults will be diagnosed with Lyme disease this year. The website tickchek.com — operated by a lab that tests ticks — reports 72 confirmed cases in Clay County from 2000 to 2015 but cautions: “Due to the fact that the CDC’s data only represent confirmed cases, the actual quantity of Lyme disease may be far greater. We estimate a total of 720 true cases in Clay County.”

The North Dakota Department of Health is also sounding the alarm. It counted 32 cases statewide last year. The national site tickchek.com reports 90 confirmed cases in Cass since 2000, amid an estimated total of 900.

Are you sure you don’t feel eight miniscule black legs crawling up your thigh?

Because that’s about the limit of what the tick can do — crawl. It doesn’t fly, or hop, or float or chase you. Instead, it lingers on long blades of grass or branches in the brush until you invite it aboard. From that point, it takes its time sitting down to dinner. Once it’s fastened its mouth-thingie to your haunches and begins to feed, its bacteria- or virus-laden spit starts to seep into your plasma.

Scientists studying deer ticks estimate the chances at one in four that the little fellow who’s taken a shine to you is carrying Lyme. If yours happens to be the lucky winner, you can still thwart his mission by carefully inspecting your own hide. A little tick nip won’t do it; the ravenous little fellow needs 36 to 48 hours of slurping to give you the full benefit of his injection. (The less common but deadlier Powasson virus, though, can be transmitted with far shorter contact.)

The evil black-legged nemesis comes in three sizes. Newly hatched deer tick larvae — the poppy-seed size — pick up their load of germs from their first hosts, four-legged creatures that range from deer (of course) to skittering rodents. Now’s their time to shine. Their tiny size makes them hardest to spot; beware any new dot the size of a speck of ground pepper.

Starting now, the most common summer suckers are nymphs. They’re about the size of the letter D on a dime — pretty puny. By August or September, when they’re full grown, even our fabled winter won’t faze them. The tough little buggers survive the cold to lay the eggs destined to become 2018’s headache.

Headache, in fact, is one of the symptoms that you’ve been kissed. First, though, comes a rash, often eerily resembling the Target logo. You may feel achy, tired or feverish — or not. Lyme’s vague effects can elude diagnosis by mimicking all kinds of complaints, or seem barely worth bringing up at all. Do. Caught early, the slate can be wiped clean with a dose of doxycycline.

The long-term consequences can be far worse if the early signs are missed, among them severe joint pain, nerve damage, Bell’s palsy and even meningitis. Lingering Lyme can evolve over time; 25 percent of untreated cases lead to bouts of arthritis, memory loss or even cognitive impairment.

Don’t you feel like something is moseying along the back of your arm?

The good news? The ticks can’t tag you if you spot them first. Stick to well-maintained areas outdoors. Wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants and closed shoes. If you see a peculiar rash of fashion violations this summer — pants cuffs tucked into the tops of socks, say, or socks with sandals — blame the ticks this time, not Minnesota’s lack of chic.

Dowse your extremities with DEET insect repellent and your clothes with a product containing permethrin. Hikers and other serious outdoors types can outfit themselves with clothing treated with permethrin; the repellent lasts through 70 wash cycles.

Check yourself and the kids when you come inside … especially those moist, dark places that offer intimate dining. If you spot a spot, so to speak, forget Mother’s coaching or much you’ve read on the internet: No Vaseline, no peppermint oil, no nail polish, no touching its rump with the tip of an extinguished match. Find those pointy-nosed tweezers in the back of the medicine chest; grasp the nasty thing as close to its head as you can get and pull straight up.

I know, I know — who wants to think about icky ticks as we dive deliriously into summer? It’s hard to find an upside to our accelerating tick boom.

But there’s one good thing to be said for them: If you flush them down the toilet, they stay gone.

Hey! What’s that crawling on your neck?

One thought on “NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Tick Talk”

  • thewordchipper June 1, 2017 at 4:52 pm

    You probably know this already, Nancy, if not, you should by now: you are a damn good writer. Not only is the subject of your piece packed with information all of us should have to help save us from sickness or even death, it is very well written. It’s interesting, fun to follow with simulating emotional cues. This is another good example for your students. Thanks for this submission.


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