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Tick Data Brings Peace of Mind

Liz Lerner

Discovering an engorged tick on your body while taking a shower is the Martha’s Vineyard version of the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

The one I found was on my hip. A small blood-filled sesame seed-sized insect capable of laying me low with all manner of diseases.

I did what any man would do. I yelled for my wife.

“Norma, look at this,” I said, “It’s a tick.” Norma agreed. It was a tick.

Now, it’s not as if we just fell off the tour bus from Omaha. We are familiar with ticks.

Years ago, when Norma and I were caretaking off Middle Road in the up-island town of Chilmark, we regularly plucked ticks, mostly the larger variety dog tick, off our black Labrador tick magnet.

I am an avid deer hunter and spend many hours outdoors each fall. I spray all my hunting clothing with permethrin, an insecticide used to tick-proof clothing, and check myself regularly when I come indoors.

Covid-19 has changed our lifestyle. I wasn’t thinking about ticks in early July. I’d let my guard down. My guess is that I may have picked up the tick while putting on fishing waders in a grassy parking lot in Aquinnah.

Ticks are the equivalent of insect vampires with none of the charm of Bela Lugosi, but they would simply be another annoying, biting insect if it were not for the serious diseases they can transmit.

The wood (or dog) tick can carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever. The small deer tick is responsible for infecting humans with Lyme disease, the most publicized of tick-borne illnesses. Deer ticks are also capable of transmitting a malaria-like disease called babesiosis, as well as ehrlichiosis (HGE), a disease related to Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Then there is tularemia.

The deer tick, particularly in its nymphal stage, is so small it may go undiscovered on a person long enough — approximately 48 hours — to infect them.

Still, a tick embedded in the skin is no reason to panic. Not every tick is disease-ridden. But it is important, particularly for visitors to the Cape and Islands who may seek treatment from doctors unfamiliar with tick-borne diseases, to be aware of the signs and symptoms of tick-borne infections.

I pulled the deer tick out of my hip and stuck it on a piece of tape. Then I called the office of my primary care physician at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. Nurse practitioner Marcy Holmes returned my call and asked me to send her photos of the site. I did my best to crop out my stomach — quarantine and bread-making has not been kind to me.

In a virtual office visit, she explained that the redness was not necessarily a sign of infection but was likely normal inflammation caused by the bite. After discussing options, we decided I would take a one-time precautionary dose of the antibiotic doxycycline. She advised me to watch for any signs of the characteristic ragged, circular, reddish rash and call the office if I experienced any flu-like symptoms.

I went one step further. I sent my tick to TickReport, a testing service at the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The service’s tagline is “A piece of data is peace of mind.” I’ll second that notion.

I felt fine, but I had no way of knowing what, if anything, was now swimming in my bloodstream waiting to upend my summer or my life.

The basic test costs $50. It identifies the tick and tests for common pathogens.

Website instructions said not to use tape and to place the tick in a plastic baggie. Oops. I used a toothpick to gingerly pry the tick off the tape and placed it in the baggie a bit worse for the wear.

Within three days of arrival, TickReport texted me a report. Tests for nine pathogens were all negative. Whew!

To my surprise, the culprit was a lone star tick. Until recently, lone star ticks were fairly rare on the Vineyard. But that is changing quickly, and there is nothing good about it.

Vineyard Gazette reporter Noah Asimow described this species’ intrusion in a news story published December 2019, “Rapid Spread of Lone Star Ticks Alarms Experts.”

Lone star ticks do not transmit Lyme disease but they can serve as vectors for a number of nasty pathogens. Some people also develop a red-meat allergy.

The thought of not being able to eat a juicy venison burger is as frightening to me as that Psycho scene. Being more careful is the new normal in so many ways.