Disease-carrying, insidious monsters, hiding just out of sight, but whose bite can kill, they lurk in the shadows, waiting to make you their next meal.
This is not the plot of a B-grade horror film – these monsters are all too real. They’re ticks. And they really are out to get you.
“They’re blood feeders, of course, and with that, they can pick up and spread disease organisms,” said Scott Schell, extension entomology specialist for the University of Wyoming.
”Whether it’s bacteria like the one that causes Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, or viruses like the ones that cause Colorado tick fever, (the diseases) often come from other animals that they feed on, like rodents,” he said. “And so then, if we are bitten by a tick that is carrying more of those disease agents, then we could get it.”
With tick season in the Rocky Mountains rapidly approaching — most generally recognize it as beginning in April and running into September — experts are warning about the problems the blood-suckers carry with them.
Serious diseases sometimes spread by infected ticks in Wyoming include tularemia, Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) and Colorado tick fever (CTF), and some residents have even reported contracting Lyme disease.
And those diseases can be deadly. Thirty-year-old Monica Arbery was diagnosed with Lyme disease just six years ago, when she was living in Lander, although the bite occurred when she was a child while on a camping trip in northern Wisconsin. And that seemingly innocuous event nearly ended her life.
“I got arthritis a couple of years (after being bitten) in my knees, and then major depression in my teenage years and a lot of hormonal problems, and then it just escalated from there,” Arbery told Cowboy State Daily.
Arbery, now a resident of Texas, said her parents took her to multiple doctors, who chalked her symptoms up to psychosomatic illness, as they could find no obvious cause. By the time she was diagnosed in her mid-twenties, Arbery said she was basically bedridden.
“I was down to 90 pounds,” she said. “And I was having extreme difficulty walking. Even though I had some problems in my teenage years, I was full of life and very active. But by my mid-20s, I was really, really thin. I was walking with a cane. I was having severe memory loss – there was a time I didn’t even know who my mom was. I got major depression, and had GI issues like diarrhea and vomiting.”
The breakthrough for Arbery came when she saw a functional medicine doctor in Jackson, Dr. Mark Menolascino, who finally tested her for Lyme disease.
“He said that it was the most Lyme he’d ever seen in a patient,” she said.
It took several years, but Arbery has now mostly recovered from her battle with Lyme disease. She is married now, and the mother of a 15-month-old and a newborn – a life she thought might never be hers.
“Part of me is just like, was it a miracle?” Arbery said. “I don’t even know. I got better, though.”
Arbery’s experience was extreme, although not unheard of. Others, like 78-year-old Carol Kellogg from Lander, went through similar – although milder – symptoms before being diagnosed with Lyme disease from a tick bite she received in Wyoming just over five years ago.
“I started kind of feeling sluggish and tired and cranky and in you know, all the stuff that goes with it. And so I went to the doctor and I said, ‘I’d like to have a test for tick fever.’”
Kellogg’s initial tests were negative, but her symptoms kept getting worse. Finally she saw a doctor in Jackson who tested her for Lyme disease.
“I finally had the test done, and they sent it off to California, and after two or three weeks, it came back and said, Yes, you definitely have Lyme disease. So that’s when I started seeing naturopathic doctors and acupuncturists and anybody that I thought could make me feel better. I just had absolutely no energy, I was tired all the time, I slept a lot. And it just kind of went from there.”
Part of the danger posed by ticks is that the species is exceptionally hardy. One researcher, who published his findings in the Journal of Medical Entomology, studied a group of African ticks that lived 27 years, many of those years without feeding, and reproduced asexually.
While Schell said the documented case was extreme, he acknowledged that Wyoming ticks are also rather tenacious.
“The ones that we have the most problem with can go a year without feeding,” he said. “So that’s pretty amazing in itself.”
Kim Deti with the Wyoming Department of Health said the best way to prevent contracting tick-borne diseases is to avoid getting bitten in the first place.
“People can be exposed to ticks when walking through, playing or sitting in brushy and grassy areas, or handling certain animals,” Deti said, citing several steps people can take to avoid being bitten:
• Carefully handle live or dead potentially infected animals such as rabbits and rodents.
• Use insect repellent, such as DEET, when outdoors
• Wear long sleeves and pants when outdoors
• Treat outdoor clothing, such as hiking clothing, with permethrin (an insecticide)
• Avoid wooded and brushy areas with high grass
• Do tick checks after spending time outdoors
• Apply pesticides outdoors to reduce ticks in yards
• Clear brush, tall grass, and leaf litter from yards to reduce the number of ticks
“We are fortunate the Rocky Mountain woodtick adults (which are by far the most common) are relatively large, easier to find, than say … back East where they have the black legged tick, the little tiny deer tick that spreads Lyme disease,” Schell said.
Kellogg and Arbery both noted that the seemingly small insect bites they received altered their lives.
“Your joints hurt, you can’t move, everything just kind of shuts down,” said Kellogg. “And then you just have to sit around all day long or find something to entertain yourself, because you don’t have the energy to walk out to the kitchen and get a glass of water.”
“It’s really hard to say what made me better,” said Arbery. “I mean, I still have some symptoms, and I’ve been able to have children and get married and everything, which I never thought I would do.”