Keeping Tabs On Tick Bites

5:19 minutes

A tick under a microscope.
An adult female blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis) under 10x magnification. Credit: East Stroudsburg University

If you live in the Midwest or Northeast, you’re probably aware of an issue that’s gotten worse over the years: ticks, and the illnesses they can spread, including Lyme Disease and Alpha-gal syndrome.

Scientists are still trying to learn more about how and where ticks are spreading. That’s where The Tick App comes in. It’s a community science effort where you can log your tick encounter and help scientists learn more about tick-borne disease. Science Friday digital producer Emma Gometz sat down with Ira to talk about her recent article profiling the app, and the scientists behind forms of tick monitoring research.

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Segment Guests

Emma Lee Gometz

Emma Lee Gometz is Science Friday’s Digital Producer of Engagement. She’s a writer and illustrator who loves drawing primates and tending to her coping mechanisms like G-d to the garden of Eden.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: If you live in the Midwest or Northeast, you’ve probably become aware of an issue that’s gotten worse over the years. I’m talking about ticks and the illnesses they can spread, including Lyme disease. Scientists are still trying to learn more about how and where ticks are spreading.

And that’s where the tick app comes in. No, not TikTok. It’s a community science effort where you can log your tick encounter and help scientists learn more about tick-borne diseases. Here to tell us about this project is Emma Gometz, Science Friday’s digital producer, who wrote an article about this topic for our website. Emma, tell me about this story.

EMMA GOMETZ: Well, there’s a lot of research coming out about how climate change is causing ticks range to expand. And ticks need to be in a warmer environment to be active. And because it’s going to be warmer for longer times of the year, their actual period of activity is increasing.

And so there have been some research also coming out about how their tick-borne diseases are spreading. You might have heard about alpha gal syndrome, which creates a meat allergy if you get bitten by a tick or like, typical, like, Lyme disease, stuff like that. And those diseases are becoming more popular, unfortunately.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you know, I live in Connecticut. I know all about Lyme disease. It was invented here. Let’s talk about why ticks particularly are hard to combat.

EMMA GOMETZ: Yeah, well, they’re just a really interesting animal. The way they move is really unique. That’s why they’re on tall grass. They just crawl right up there. They can’t really jump directly on you. So their movement is largely dictated by the hosts that they’re attached to. So to understand how ticks move, you kind of have to understand how the hosts, like deer or mice or even humans, are moving them around.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I said at the top I was talking about community science. And I hear there’s an app for reporting tick encounters. Tell me about that.

EMMA GOMETZ: Yes, there is. So a researcher at Columbia University named Maria Diuk-Wasser worked with a couple other universities to make something called the Tick app, which helps people who are exposed to ticks in their day-to-day life find out more about what kind of tick might have bitten them. What life stage it is. And that can help you decide the level of risk that you might have been exposed to.

And what that does for the scientists is it helps them understand who’s being bitten by ticks. Or who’s even being exposed to ticks at all. Where they are. When it happens. It just gives them a full range of data about tick behavior specifically.

And then for the app users, they get access to educational resources about how to remove a tick. How to identify one at all. And it just helps them understand what potential diseases they might be exposed to. And it could help them just understand that level of risk. So it’s interesting how this app is an educational tool, but the scientists also use that data from the reports to do their research.

IRA FLATOW: So I guess if you’ve actually been bitten by a tick, you’re helping out the scientists?

EMMA GOMETZ: Yeah, definitely.

IRA FLATOW: Now, how would you respond to someone who is afraid of going outside because of the risk of ticks?

EMMA GOMETZ: Yeah, I was terrified of ticks. I kind of still am. But what I learned when I was writing this story was that we already know a lot about prevention. So Permethrin, for example, you can soak your clothes in it, and it will repel ticks. Checking for ticks after you go outside. And knowing that you don’t have to go into the middle of the forest to get bitten by a tick.


EMMA GOMETZ: Actually, in urban areas, yeah, ticks will concentrate in places with grasses, like in parks or even backyards. So just like being conscious–


EMMA GOMETZ: –that if you’re out in a place where a tick could be, just to check. And then you can also send them to a lab, and they can actually test what diseases that tick has. And then it’s the same thing. You get to find out if you’ve been exposed to a disease, and then that research lab will use that data to help us understand where confirmed cases of ticks carrying disease actually are.

IRA FLATOW: So this is a pretty serious project because not only are you checking for ticks on yourself, which is very important, right? You want to know if you’ve been bitten by a tick, and to do something about it because it can be serious. But you’re also helping other people because now we’ll maybe where all the ticks are living.

EMMA GOMETZ: Definitely. The scientist, Dr. Diuk-Wasser, said that community sourced data is really important because not a lot of this can be done experimentally. We just have to know the reality of who is and isn’t getting bitten and what kind of diseases they’re being diagnosed with.

And a great example that I think about a lot is that the CDC used to estimate how many people were diagnosed with Lyme disease by just how many people were reporting it to the CDC. But then they started taking data from commercial labs, research labs, and insurance claims actually. And then they found that the number was actually 10 times the number that people were reporting.



IRA FLATOW: Wow. Well, Emma, thank you for bringing this very important stuff to us.

EMMA GOMETZ: Yeah, no problem.

IRA FLATOW: Emma Gometz, Science Friday’s digital producer. You can check out her article at sciencefriday.com/ticks.

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