Poppyseed muffin lovers across the United States cringed this month after seeing two photos tweeted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The first photo depicts a perfectly golden poppyseed muffin speckled with the black seeds — or so it seems.
But after squinting our eyes and pulling our phones closer to our faces — our stomachs turned. There! On the second photo — a closer image — we spotted the tiny, blacked-legged ticks, (called nymph ticks) — atop our favorite poppyseed muffins.
Comments of all sorts, from the garden-variety jokester to critics and advocacy groups, came flooding in.
Lyme disease, transmitted by tick bites, is one of the fastest growing infectious diseases in the United States. Preventing Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses has been on America’s radar for a while, but we often think of ticks as those easily visible, half dime-sized bugs that burrow into our skin — or our dogs’.
So, what’s the difference between the tiny ticks and larger ones? Nymph ticks can’t be that dangerous, right? Wrong.
4 things to know about ticks this year and how to protect yourself
Blacklegged ticks. From left to right, the larva, nymph, adult female, and adult male. Image by Fairfax County Flickr.
1. Nymph ticks are most active now, and they’re most likely to transmit infections to humans
A single tick will progress through four stages of development in its lifetime: egg, larva, nymph, and adult. The nymph tick is most active in the spring through the summer months, and it’s about the size of a poppy seed.
And they don’t pack less of a punch because of their size. Nymph ticks are actually the most likely to transmit Lyme disease or another tick-borne infection to humans than ticks at other stages, according to the CDC.
Less than two millimeters in size, nymphs can bite people and remain virtually undetected. They also burrow into your or your pet’s skin.
Although adult ticks may also transmit Lyme disease, they’re much larger, so you’re more likely to see them and promptly remove them.
How to check for ticks
- Inspect yourself, your child, and your pets for ticks whenever you’ve been outdoors. Be sure to check the hidden spots and crevices of the body like the scalp, along the hairline, under the armpits, in the belly button, in the groin, and on the genitals.
2. A tick bite doesn’t feel like a mosquito bite
Many people think they’ll be able to feel when a tick bites them, just like they feel a mosquito bite.
But ticks are sneaky little bloodsuckers, and they’ve evolved with some sophisticated, almost science fiction-like mechanisms.
Their saliva contains natural anesthetic and immune suppressors to ensure that you don’t feel anything at all when they jab you to feed, reports the Internal Lyme and Associated Diseases Society (ILADS).
The less access the ticks have to your skin, the better. Wear light-colored clothing and tuck your long-sleeved shirt into your pants and your pants into your socks.
Protect your skin and clothing
- When outdoors, the CDC recommends using a tick repellent that contains at least 20 percent DEET or picaridin on your skin. Treat your clothing by spraying on a product with at least 0.5 percent permethrin.
3. It’s unclear how long ticks must be attached to you to transmit infections
Should you happen to quickly find a tick embedded in your skin, don’t assume you have no chance of contracting Lyme disease or another tick-borne infection.
The CDC states that a tick must be attached to a host for 24-48 hours to transmit Lyme disease. But a 2015 review stated that the minimum attachment time for transmission of an infection has never been established.
That study also brought to light six documented cases of Lyme disease that had been transmitted in less than 6 hours. Plus, the other diseases that ticks carry — such as babesiosis and bartonellosis — may occur within minutes after a tick has latched onto your skin.
What does this mean for you? While the transmission risks may be lower the less time a tick is attached to you, the risk isn’t completely eliminated if you find an embedded tick and remove it before 24 hours has passed.
Also, keep in mind, many people may not know how or when they acquired a tick bite, making it very difficult to calculate the length of time it was attached for.
How to remove a tick
- Use fine-pointed tweezers to grasp the tick’s mouth as close to your skin as possible. Don’t put Vaseline on the tick, essential oils, or burn it. Instead, use your tweezers to pull the tick straight out of the skin and save it for testing. Wash your hands and the area of the bite with soap and water.
4. If you’ve been bitten by an infected tick, you may not develop a rash
Following a tick bite, many people wait and see if they develop a bulls-eye rash. If not, they may wrongfully assume they’re in the clear.
In reality, less than 50 percent of people infected with Lyme disease have a memory of any rash. Other symptoms, like fatigue and aches, occur in many common illnesses. That can make obtaining an accurate diagnosis challenging.
- If you choose to have your tick tested, organizations like the Bay Area Lyme Foundation will test your tick free of charge or for a small fee.
What you need to know about Lyme disease
Lyme disease is already an epidemic across many parts of the United States, and cases doubled between 2005 and 2015. Although it’s most prevalent in the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast, it’s been found in all 50 states.
When Lyme disease is caught in its early stages, the chances it can be cured are greater. But if left untreated, it can lead to a myriad of chronic, debilitating symptoms. Antibiotic treatment is inadequate for 10-20 percent of people, leading to ongoing symptoms, or chronic Lyme disease.
Ultimately, your best defense is to remain vigilant of any unusual symptoms that pop up.
In the early stages of an infection, the symptoms may include flu-like symptoms such as:
- muscle aches
- joint pain
Neurological symptoms like facial drooping (Bell’s palsy) or serious cardiac issues like Lyme carditis can also occur.
If you experience any of these symptoms following a possible exposure to an infected tick, visit a healthcare practitioner who has expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of Lyme disease.
Though a poppyseed-sized tick may seem like a little issue, it has the potential to ruin much more than your cravings for muffins.
Jenny Lelwica Buttaccio, OTR/L, is a Chicago-based freelance writer, occupational therapist, health coach in training, and certified Pilates instructor whose life was transformed by Lyme disease and chronic fatigue syndrome. She writes on topics including health, wellness, chronic illness, fitness, and beauty. Jenny openly shares her personal healing journey at The Lyme Road.