CAMDEN — A talk with Dr. Beatrice Szantyr can leave a sensitive person itchy, with a stomachache and a throbbing head — much like Lyme disease.
Szantyr, an expert in ticks and the infectious diseases they spread, gave just such a stomach-gurgling talk on May 25 at Camden Public Library when she discussed how the bugs climb up people’s limbs, pick a fleshy place and burrow their teeth through human skin while they throw up bacteria and suck out blood.
Gross, right? And dangerous.
Szantyr has been studying Lyme disease for 16 years now. She said this is the time of year when baby ticks, nymphs start feeding off people in midcoast Maine.
These nymph-stage ticks are tiny. Really tiny. Smaller than a pencil tip. Most people can not see them with the naked eye.
To protect against them, Szantyr said people must feel over their bodies for little bumps. If the bumps have legs, you’re in trouble, she said.
Spring is the time for the little ticks. By late summer and fall the nymphs have grown into larger ticks with eight legs.
People cannot feel when these ticks bite and burrow into their flesh because as they draw blood, they also spit a numbing chemical and blood thinners, Szantyr said.
Midcoast Maine is a hot spot for Lyme disease, an infection of bacteria that is spread by some — but not all — deer ticks.
“Really, really a hot spot on coastal Maine,” she said. On maps Szantyr projected onto a white screen, Knox and Waldo counties were covered in little dots, each dot representing a case of Lyme disease.
“It’s an increasing problem in the area,” Szantyr said. “It’s a preventable infectious disease. It can be devastating in its consequences.”
Among the myriad symptoms Lyme disease can cause are:
• Joint pain.
• Memory troubles.
• Blurry vision.
• Heart palpitations.
Szantyr said the only way to diagnose Lyme disease is by having the sufferer tell his or her doctor exactly what symptoms he or she is experiencing.
Often with this disease, there are multiple symptoms and often the symptoms come and go. Lab results are not perfect, either.
One of the best ways a person who thinks they might have the disease to know for sure, Szantyr said, is by trying a diagnosed treatment to see whether the symptoms dissipate.
The best prevention is to wear long shirts tucked into long pants, tucked into socks. This way the ticks can’t easily access skin.
Szantyr recommended wearing light colors so ticks can be seen easily. There are some sprays — both for skin and for clothing — that repel ticks.
Szantyr said if a person finds a tick attached to skin, the tick should be removed with tweezers. The tweezers should be close to the skin and pulled up with steady pressure. Ideally, the tick will come out in one pick.
“The best tick removal is when you get some skin to come, too. Sorry to say it,” she said.
Ticks should then be placed in plastic bags, and if the person is unsure if the tick was biting for more than four hours, it should be saved so it can be sent to a lab if necessary.
Tracy Wheeler of Rockport attended the tick talk. He said he has been bitten twice this tick season already.
“I need to be more conscious about protecting myself,” Wheeler said. “I know I’m in a tick area.”
Wheeler attended the discussion to learn how to best protect himself and what steps to take now.
Evan Grant, from Round Pond, said he has Lyme disease. He is trying to treat it and came to learn about his options.
“I had all the normal symptoms,” Grant said. He came to learn how to identify ticks and how to prevent them from sucking his blood, as a person can be infected with the disease more than once.
Camden has a Lyme disease support group that meets 6-8 p.m. the second Tuesday of every month at St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Chestnut Street.
Megan Kelly, epidemiologist from the Maine Centers for Disease Control, will lead a discussion about Lyme disease at 6 p.m. Wednesday, June 8, at Waldo County General Hospital Education Center in Belfast.