Spring Has Sprung, & so Have the Microbes

4 04 2011

Photo Credit: James Gathany, CDC

“Sweet spring is your time is my time,” wrote poet e.e. cummings. It also happens to be the time for ticks that harbor the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, and sweet springs that harbor Giardia lamblia, an intestinal parasite guaranteed to get your intestines roiling.

Beautiful weather and warming temperatures draw people to the great outdoors, where they’ll put hiking boot to path in many places where these threats lie in wait. Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium responsible for Lyme disease, lurks in the blood of two of its hosts, mice and deer. Ticks take up the microbe along with their blood snack, and when they snack on you, the microbe transfers along with some tick saliva. Ewww.

While you are most at risk of encountering a Borrelia-toting tick in the northeastern United States, the ticks that carry it live throughout the country, anywhere their hosts and good weather await.

If you find a tick, gently tweeze it out by grasping it near the head (that old “match to the tick” solution will only singe your body hair). Watch for the telltale signs of a Lyme infection, which can include a bullseye rash that forms around the bite. Note also that you can pick up a tick bite not only from hiking or hunting where ticks occur, but also from walking in tall grasses, gardening, or from a pet that’s carrying them around.

If a tick bites you, keep an eye out for symptoms for 30 days. The good news about Lyme is that most people with tick bites don’t develop it, and an antibiotic treatment will usually take care of the disease if you do get it.

Ticks can be practically invisible and difficult to avoid in some places, but you can always be careful about the water you drink. And careful you should be, because in many of the most beautiful places in the U.S., swimming in that cool mountain stream is a nasty little pathogen, Giardia lamblia. While it has been associated with food-borne outbreaks and oro-genital contact, in the wild, this unwelcome microscopic protist emerges from the intestines of woodland creatures via poop to end up in water sources.

If you drink that water without filtering it first, using a water filter that keeps G. lamblia out of your mouth, you’ll swallow Giardia cysts along with that cool drink. Giardia will take advantage of the homey environment of your intestines, and in a week or two will start reproducing. Your end of the bargain is debilitating intestinal symptoms that can last for weeks. Treatments are available, but giardiasis can often resolve on its own, if unpleasantly.


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