James Gathany / AP
As temperatures rise in California and those seeking respite head for the beach, there is a new concern beyond the sun’s harmful rays and strong undercurrents: diseases that seem to be spreading all along the coast of the Golden State.
The black-legged arachnids that bear Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, is common on the east coast, where it is usually found in wooded areas and tall grass. But new research shows that blood-sucking creatures are also able to thrive along the West Coast, although experts aren’t sure exactly why or how.
An unexpected home in California
Dan Salkeld, a biology researcher at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, led a four-year study that found ticks on beaches along much of northern California, from Mendocino County to County of Monterrey. They appear to be moving further south as well, including to Malibu, Manhattan Beach and Newport Beach, Salkeld told NPR affiliate KCRW, although he notes the threat of Lyme disease is minimal in these regions.
“Three studies combined by other researchers (…) revealed that one in more than 5,000 ticks is actually infected. The risk in Southern California is therefore really low,” he said. .
According to research from Northern California, Salkeld said, about 4% of adult ticks – which are larger and easier to discover – carry the bacteria.
Yet coastal shrubs and grasses provide surprising new habitat for the disease, as these ecosystems do not support traditional reservoir hosts.
Ticks alone do not carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. In order for this to happen, they must draw blood from a mammalian host that can harbor B. burgdorferi. On the East Coast, these are usually deer and white-footed mice. In California, that would include deer, as well as western gray squirrels, voles and mice – none of which live in seaside grasslands.
Lyme disease cases soar in California
“We know there are more ticks in more places with more pathogens than most people know,” said Lia Gaertner, Bay Area director of education and outreach. Lyme Foundation, which funded Salkeld’s research.
Because of his work, Gaernter added, “Now we are able to match what we see from our personal experience with what we hear from doctors and patients.”
Ronald Owens, spokesperson for the state’s public health department, told SFGate there were less than 50 confirmed and probable cases of Lyme disease in 2020. That’s less than half of what is generally reported, he said.
But Gaernter believes this to be a woefully inaccurate method of counting cases – that in many cases, she says, doctors aren’t able, unwilling or trained to identify or treat. .
A 2018 report from Quest on Lyme disease says cases in California increased 195% from 2015 to 2017, and the infection that causes the disease has been found in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that approximately 476,000 Americans are diagnosed and treated for Lyme disease each year.
Symptoms of Lyme disease and how to protect yourself
Typical symptoms of the disease include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, swollen lymph nodes, and a rash.
But in the latter’s case, Gaertner cautions against relying on the appearance of the bullseye-shaped rash that has been talked about for decades.
“It’s a myth that every Lyme disease infection comes with this kind of rash. In fact, most rashes are solid red oval rashes, so people shouldn’t think of that. they don’t have it if they don’t see this bubble, ”she said. mentionned.
It can also be incredibly difficult to spot a tick, especially if it is in the nymph stage. Salkeld described them as being the size of a poppy seed, while Gaertner said they can be as small as a dot on a computer screen.
In either case, they are just as dangerous as adult ticks in spreading various diseases and can feast for three to four days. It is therefore imperative to make a complete assessment of the body and the head using a magnifying glass or a smartphone magnifier after an outing in the great outdoors, according to Gaertner.
She recommends replacing dark leggings with light-colored clothing to make it easier to see even the smallest creatures, and using permethrin tick repellent on bags, shoes and socks, which should always be used. be threaded through the cuffs of the pants to prevent direct access to the legs. “And always walk the designated path,” she said, adding that ticks like to “do quests” on top of tall grass, “while waiting for a chance to hitchhike.”
Registering the tick is super important
Once home, put the clothes in a dryer on high heat for about 15 minutes to kill any remaining tourist ticks. A full shower, rubbing under the armpits, behind the knees and in the genitals, will also help remove ticks that have not yet latched onto the breast.
If you find a tick, “the only suitable way to remove it is to use sharp tweezers, because you don’t want it to vomit its bacteria into you,” Gaertner said.
And once removed, don’t throw it away!
Instead, she says, wrap it in a damp paper towel, put it in a plastic sandwich bag, and drop it in the mail at a tick testing lab. In 3 days, she said, they can tell what kind of tick it was, how long it had been feeding on, and what kind of illnesses it was carrying. “This is very important information that people need to share with their doctors,” says Gaertner.
Gaertner offered one final piece of advice to those who are now terrified of going out: “I know this all sounds scary, but knowing how scary it is makes it a lot safer for you.”