Marin ticks pose threat after recent storms

The western black-legged tick, also known as the deer tick, is known to carry Lyme disease and other pathogens. (Courtesy of Marin/Sonoma Mosquito and Vector Control District) 

With Marin residents taking advantage of the clear weather following recent storms, so are the ticks that carry bacteria that can cause Lyme disease and other illnesses.

Marin is among the counties in California with the highest prevalence of ticks carrying Lyme disease, said Linda Giampa, executive director of the Bay Area Lyme Foundation. The small, blood-sucking arachnids prefer moist, foggy areas in the grasslands and chaparral.

Tick season is basically year-round in Marin, but the most activity occurs from October through July, according to the Marin/Sonoma Mosquito and Vector Control District. It is around February and March that young ticks, known as nymphs, are beginning to come out — especially after rain — and search for an animal or human leg to hop on for a meal.

Studies conducted by the foundation and the Marin/Sonoma Mosquito and Vector Control District tend to find that 3-5% of ticks in Marin have the bacteria that cause Lyme disease. One study by the foundation in 2018 found 38% of surveyed ticks at China Camp State Park had the bacteria.

“That was the highest we know of in California,” Giampa said.

The most recent study, in 2021, found that about 2-6% of nymphs in Marin carried the bacteria, according to lead author Dan Salkeld, a researcher at Colorado State University.

“But there were some areas where prevalence was over 10%,” Salkeld said. “I think that this kind of thing often fluctuates between years.”

In addition to Lyme, ticks carry other types of infectious pathogens. The 2021 study found that nearly 30% of 21,000 ticks tested in coastal counties from Monterey to Mendocino tested positive for some type of pathogen that can infect humans.

Preventing tick bites and infections comes down to taking proper precautions before heading outdoors and being vigilant after being in tick habitat, which includes most of Marin County.

“Wear long sleeves and long pants and make sure they’re light-colored because it’s easier to spot the ticks,” said Nizza Sequeira of the Marin/Sonoma Mosquito and Vector Control District. “Wear insect repellents.”

Staying on manicured trails can also reduce the chances of tick contact. After a hike or mountain bike, Sequeira said, it is important to check clothes, exposed skin and pets for ticks. After returning home, a shower or bath is also a good time to check other areas.

Giampa recommends that people toss their hiking or biking clothes in the dryer on high heat for 20 minutes first before washing them.

“Water doesn’t kill the ticks. Heat will,” she said.

The best way to remove a tick from skin is using fine-tipped tweezers.

“Grasp it on the body and mouth part and pull straight out,” Sequeira said. “Do not twist it, don’t burn it. Pull it directly out.”

While it might be tempting to toss the parasite in the trash or flush it down to the local sewage system, Giampa said the best course of action is to keep the tick and get it tested for diseases as soon as possible. The Marin County Department of Health and Human Services and private services perform the tests.

Giampa said testing the tick is the best way to learn whether one is at risk of infection because other diagnostic tests such as blood tests are unreliable and often miss about half of positive Lyme disease cases. The bacteria causing Lyme disease leaves the bloodstream quickly compared to other bacteria and harbors itself in fatty tissues, ligaments and joints, according to Giampa.  Additionally, some of the telltale symptoms of Lyme disease infection, such as a bull’s-eye rash around the bite mark, do not show up in all infected people.

Removing a tick within 24 hours of a bite can greatly reduce the chances of contracting Lyme disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Diagnosing Lyme disease early can mean the difference between a few weeks of antibiotic treatment and potentially chronic symptoms. For most people, antibiotic treatment will be effective, but Giampa said about 20% of cases continue to experience symptoms for months if not years after.

Marin County park ranger Grifin Anderson said he was one of the unfortunate people who developed long-term Lyme disease symptoms after getting bitten by a tick while mountain biking in the San Geronimo Valley in high school. At the time, he didn’t associate them with Lyme disease and didn’t begin treatment until more than two years later.

Soon after the bite, he developed a rash in his abdomen and flu-like symptoms. Severe joint pain began in his knees a few days later and the symptoms began to escalate through time, Anderson said.

“I had all kinds of weird symptoms, this thing called air hunger where I would wake up and be completely out of breath,” Anderson said. “Then I had panic attacks and never had those before. Full-on anxiety. Crazy neuropathy. Pain and tingling. The best way I could describe it is it felt like I had explosions going on all over my body. It was terrible. I was really in a bad place.”

Anderson said the issues reached the point that he joined a Lyme disease group. Some of the members had symptoms for decades.

People with long-term cases have turned to integrative treatments and therapies such as light machines, dietary changes and reiki in search of relief.

“We liken it to long COVID. Long COVID has brought out this whole thing where Lyme patients have been complaining about chronic Lyme for 20 years and some doctors think it’s in their heads,” Giampa said. “Long COVID is very similar where it becomes chronic and you don’t know how to remedy it.”

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