Tiny, annoying arachnids can cause big health problems

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PITTSBORO — The long, hot days and warm evenings coming in the summer ahead make it a perfect season for being outside, doing yardwork, hiking, playing recreational sports or just relaxing in a hammock.

But lurking among grass, weeds and shrubs in moist shady places are stealthy ticks in search of unsuspecting hosts, like dogs, cats, rodents, deer — and humans.

Small but mighty, the common tick is much more than an annoying bug. The bloodthirsty creature carries a variety of diseases that can cause lifelong debilitating medical conditions, and in some cases death.

Jennifer Platt of Pittsboro, a Doctor of Public Health and adjunct professor at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill, has made it her mission in recent years to raise the alarm about tick-borne diseases and educate the public on ways they can protect themselves and their families.

“I have found that many people don’t even know they’ve been bitten by a tick until they get sick,” she told the News + Record.

Platt knows firsthand what it feels like to be infected with a long-term illness. About 10 years ago, while working on her doctorate degree in public health, she got sick. Treatment for her flu-like symptoms led to a diagnosis of Ehrlichiosis, a bacterial illness spread by ticks.

“Actually, I was lucky because I had an aggressive health care provider, who put me on antibiotics for a long time,” she said. “Later on, we found evidence that I had contracted Lyme Disease and Babesia from a tick bite.”

Recently a new and dangerous tick-caused condition has emerged on the landscape.

Alpha Gal Syndrome is a type of food allergy to red meat and other foods derived from mammals caused by a Lone Star tick bite. The bite transmits a sugar molecule called alpha-gal into the person’s body. In some people, it triggers an immune system reaction producing mild to severe allergic response.

Four years ago, Platt, along with Beth Carrison, co-founded Tick-borne Conditions United, a nonprofit organization dedicated to education, research, and advocacy on conditions such as AGS caused by ticks.

“A few years ago, we were commissioned to do a study and look at patient experiences and symptoms,” she said. “After the official study ended, we decided to keep it open, and today it has become the largest survey ever to look at AGS and its impact on people’s lives.”

Like Platt, Carrison has been diagnosed with tick-borne illnesses — Lyme Disease and AGS.

The Lone Star tick is found predominantly in the southeastern United States, where most cases of AGS occur. North Carolina has been identified as a hotspot for the disease.

Named for the trademark white dot found on the dorsal shield of the adult females, this type of tick has a round, reddish-brown body and is prevalent in places with high deer populations. Ticks are in the arachnid family, along with scorpions, mites and spiders.

“Ticks across all life stages thrive on deer, and as our towns expand and forestland declines, they are coming into contact with humans more frequently,” Platt said. “You know, I love deer — but when I look at one, I see a tick factory.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out a study last year showing that 35,000 people have been diagnosed with AGS, according Platt.

“And I can tell you from the Facebook support groups I have seen, that the number is growing,” she said.

Severe AGS symptoms often sneak up individuals after a tick bite, and it sometimes takes weeks for people to start showing signs of illness. These symptoms can range from gas and bloating, to hives, and even anaphylaxis.

“The reactions are not cumulative either,” Pratt said. “You could have a mild upset stomach one day, and then the next day you can’t breathe. Anybody that has been diagnosed with AGS should carry two EpiPens with them.”

Many people don’t get sick at all, which adds to the mystery.

“There’s just so much we don’t understand,” Pratt said. “But the biggest thing about AGS is it significantly disrupts people’s lives, and their abilities go out and socialize, dine in restaurants, or spend time with their families and friends, and it can be really traumatic.”

She offers advice for follow-up for anyone who finds a tick on their skin.

“Make sure you remove it right away with tweezers and save it in a baggie, because there are companies that will test it for diseases,” Platt said. “And then consult with your doctor about what to do.”

Platt added that there are blood tests to help diagnose tick-borne diseases, including AGS, and she recommends adding that test to blood panels during routine check-ups.

The best way to deal with tick-borne diseases is to avoid tick encounters altogether, Pratt says. Multi-prong tick protection including using repellents on skin, clothing, and gear, wearing light-colored long pants and long-sleeved shirts, performing daily tick checks and drying your clothes on high for 15 minutes after being outdoors in spots where ticks might be present will help keep tick-borne diseases at bay.

Practicing tick prevention measures on yards and pets will also help keep these dangerous bugs at bay and help you enjoy the great outdoors this summer and all year long.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

• https://tic-nc.org/

The Tick-Borne Infections Council of North Carolina is a non-profit organization working to improve the recognition, treatment, control, and understanding of tick-borne diseases in North Carolina.

• https://tickwarriors.com/

TickWarriors was created to help protect people, pets, property, and livestock from the potentially devastating effects of tick-borne diseases.

• https://tbcunited.org/

TBC United is dedicated to the urgent need to provide health care providers, affected patients and their families, and employers with the latest research, science-based knowledge, and innovations to diagnose and treat tick-borne diseases.

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