Ticks carrying Lyme disease are here on Vancouver Island. In my previous article, "Lyme Disease is on Vancouver Island: What You Can do to Stay Safe" I opened up discussion about this important illness and highlighted some key points everyone should know in order to keep themselves and their families safe. In this article, I would like to delve further down the rabbit hole and focus strongly on ticks and why they are such a huge link to what some are calling the Lyme Disease Epidemic. This information might make you uncomfortable, it might give you the heebie-jeebies and cause you to feel creepy crawlies all over your body- but it might also save your life or prevent illness for someone you love.
1. Deer are not the only animals spreading around Lyme infected ticks. According to Stephen Buhner in his book, "Healing Lyme", ticks carrying Lyme feed on over 300 species. Think mice, rats, rabbits, birds (over 60 species of birds are known to carry ticks), lizards, squirrels, raccoons, dogs, cats, and yes, deer. There are no areas left in the world that are free from any risk of contracting Lyme disease (caused by borrelia spirochete bacteria).
2. Ticks can live a long time- a disturbingly long time. Unfed ticks, no matter where they live, can live up to 7 years without a meal! (More commonly they only survive a couple, though) (see source)
3. Both soft and hard bodied ticks (of all developmental stages) can transmit the bacteria that can cause Lyme disease. This leads us into our next segue, transmission.
Transmission of Borrelia Bacteria Via Ticks:
Lyme Disease (what really should be called Borreliosis) is caused by a spirochete bacteria in the Borrelia genus. There are 20 species known in the Lyme group, 15 in the relapsing fever group and more becoming konwn all the time. Please note that these bacteria can also be transmitted by other anthropods (think body lice, fleas, etc), sexually or via other routes that I will not be discussing in this article, as my focus here is specifically on ticks.
It is extremely important to keep in mind that not everyone who is bitten by an infected tick will become sick. In general, the stronger an individual's immune system is, the slower the transmission time of infectious bacteria, and the less likely for infection to persist. Stephen Buhner in his book, "Healing Lyme" discusses how the stronger the immune system, the less severe the symptoms and illness will be if infection does occur.
Most sources say that if a tick is removed within 24 hours the chances of contracting Lyme (borrelia) are much lower. In my last article, even I used that generalization, but the reality is that borrelia transmission can occur with tick attachment of between as little as 10 minutes and 72 hours. Less than 16 hours is very common. There are many factors that can affect this that I will discuss shortly.
Lyme causing bacteria of the Borrelial species are not the only infections transmitted via ticks. Transmission of co-infections are typical, the most common (in terms of numbers according to Buhner) being Bartonella, Chlamydia, Mycoplasma and Babesia. Ticks co-infected with other transmissible bacteria actually have faster transmission times for Borrelia. According to Buhner this is the norm- not the exception for most ticks.
Partially fed ticks will transmit Borrelia bacteria within as little as 10 minutes of attachment VS unfed ticks. Most ticks engage in partial feeding and this is typical, not the exception. Soft ticks have very quick transmission times compared to most hard bodied ticks. The type of tick is also a factor in transmission times, certain ticks transmit organisms much faster. The more aggressive the Borrelial species is the faster transmission will be as well. Another factor to consider is the location of the spirochetes inside of the tick (it takes time for them to travel from the mid-gut VS salivary glands as an example).
Another possible way ticks can potentially transmit Borrelia is through their feces. Ticks poop continually while feeding and their feces contain unique biofilms & encysted forms (a way the bacteria protect themselves) that can allow them to enter the break in the skin via the bite location. This is an important reason to properly clean all tick and other biting anthropod bites and avoid scratching.
The reason that ticks are a prime transmitter of Borrelial and other infections (as opposed to some other biting anthropods like mosquitoes) has to do with their saliva. Tick saliva actually shuts down (inactivates) part of our immune system (known as the alternative complement system) giving the bacteria an advantage to try and gain a foothold upon which they further initiate means of manipulating our immune systems. If this pathway was not inhibited, infection would not be able to occur. The good news is, that a very strong immune system (as in those whom are healthiest) will stimulate antibodies to tick saliva and prevent future tick attachments. Those antibodies will actually stimulate tick rejection before lengthy feeding can take place. Contact your local natural health providers to learn more about using foods, herbs and supplements to support a strong immune system!
Why Do Ticks Carry These Bacteria Anyways?
Bacteria have formed relationships that are mutualistic with all other living things on earth. Think about our own bodies. We have more bacteria inhabiting our bodies than we have our own cells and most of those bacteria are residing in our digestive tracts and on other mucous membrane surfaces. We have beneficial species that live with us such as Bifidobacterium, Viridans streptococci, physiological Escherichia coli and many hundreds of others.
For ticks, it's the same, but their "probiotics" are bacteria such as the Borrelia species. Ticks infected with Borrelial spirochetes are, according to Stephen Buhner, much less prone to dehydration. This allows them to quest longer for a host. The bacteria also increases the fat reserve of the ticks by at least 12%, helps the infected ticks move more quickly, climb higher, take in larger blood meals, live longer and even become more tolerant of insect repellents. As if that wasn't enough, the bacteria also release a kind of antifreeze which helps the tick remain active during freezing temperatures (in case you thought you were in the clear during those January hikes!).
When a tick bites a host, it is looking to become infected with Borrelia if it is not already. It actually sends out chemical signals seeking the bacteria and telling them to come to it. (Again, learned from Buhner's book on Healing Lyme).
What to do If You Find an Attached Tick or If You Suspect Lyme Infection:
If you find a tick, follow the safe removal techniques outlined by CanLyme (Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation). Under no circumstance should you try smothering it with anything, burning it or using expensive essential oils because you saw someone else try it on the internet. Unorthodox removal methods can cause the tick to panic, regurgitate and speed up transmission of infectious bacteria. Stick to the known safe removal methods, but get it out as soon as you can. I carry a small zipper kit with me at all times and keep one in the first aid kit at home. I have been really fortunate to have never had need of it so far.
Be aware that if any rash forms you need to seek immediate medical attention, or do so if you develop flu-like symptoms a few days to a few weeks after the bite.
If you suspect that you have had a long-standing infection with Lyme, note that tests are unfortunately not as accurate as one would hope. Tests consistently miss infection with spirochetes. The Elisa test looks at blood serum for antibodies. 40% of people known to have Lyme because of the tell-tale bulls-eye rash still test negative with this test. Stephen Buhner says that the best test of all is a biopsy + culture of spirochetes which he says is still not very effective. He mentions the best test for long standing infection to be the Advanced laboratory Lyme test which he states as 92% effective but it takes 2-4 months for results. CanLyme can recommend testing methods to actually test ticks for infection (you have to keep them alive!). They have directions for this.
I feel very called to learn everything I can about this illness and pass along that information. I have met many people in our area over the years who have been suffering with this infection chronically and my heart has ached to be able to offer them more support and understanding around this illness. I have been really fortunate that this illness has not touched me on a personal level. If you or your loved ones in our area have suffered with Lyme infection, I want to hear your story! Please comment or send me a message!
Over the next few months, I hope to write several more articles on Lyme, specifically on the bacteria and how they affect the immune system and how we can use herbal medicine to support the body and help treat Borrelial infection. Please send me your questions and I will do my very best to answer them in any future articles to do with Lyme!
I know this information can get overwhelming- but ignoring it will not make ticks go away. Knowledge really is power and only in knowing more about something can we take active measures to help ourselves and others.