15 Useful Facts About Lyme Disease

Stringer/Getty Images
Stringer/Getty Images

As summer nears and you spend more time outdoors in one of the many beautiful natural spots in the United States, be sure to dress for the season—tick season, that is. Some experts say 2017 may be an especially tick-infested year. Deer ticks (Ixodes scapularis) carry a bacteria that causes Lyme disease, an infection from a bacterium that coils waiting in their insect bodies. Lyme-carrying deer ticks are especially prevalent in the upper East Coast, the upper Midwest, northern California, and the Oregon coast. While not every tick carries the bacteria that lead to infection—and some carry other pathogens—it’s best to take precautions to prevent bites, and seek medical attention if you have been bitten. The infection can cause long-lasting damage if not treated early. Here are 15 facts you need to know about Lyme disease.

1. LYME DISEASE IS CAUSED BY COILED BACTERIA.

Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, a spirochete, or tightly coiled bacterium that looks like a tiny spring under a microscope. Spirochetes are very simple, slow-replicating bacteria that require a mammalian or avian host to survive. According to Timothy Sellati, chair of the infectious diseases department at Southern Research, a nonprofit research institution in Birmingham, Alabama, “It takes on the order of 18–20 hours for a single spirochete to divide into two.” That’s incredibly slow, compared to other bacteria like E. coli, which can replicate every 20 minutes. Because Borrelia replicates so slowly, and they don’t reach high numbers, “They do not show up easily in a blood test,” Sellati says.

2. TICKS PREFER A LONG MEAL.

Sellati explains that ticks are very different feeders from mosquitoes, which he calls “hit-and-run feeders.” Ticks will feed over a period of three to five days before they become fully engorged. Female ticks generally only take three “blood meals,” he says, in the duration of their lifespan. They take one blood meal after hatching from their egg into the larval stage, another after they molt into their nymphal stage—the stage where they are most likely to bite you—and a final “big meal” in preparation for laying thousands of eggs. Adult male ticks generally don’t feed, he says.

3. THEY ARE A VIRULENT DISEASE VECTOR …

When an infected tick bites a human, the waiting spirochetes—which live essentially dormant in the tick’s gut until environmental cues such as changes in temperature and oxygen availability awaken them—travel from the tick’s gut to its saliva glands. “From the saliva glands they can literally be spat into the bloodstream that the tick is feeding on,” Sellati says. Once they enter the bloodstream, spirochetes travel to various body tissues, because if they stay too long in the bloodstream, they’ll get killed by their host's immune system. “Once it gets away from site of inoculation, it shows a bias toward joints, heart, central nervous system,” Sellati says.

4. … WHICH LEADS TO INFLAMMATION.

“The bacteria has components that are very effective at eliciting an inflammatory response,” Sellati explains. While Borrelia don’t produce toxins like other bacteria, they do incite inflammation in sensitive parts of the body such as the joints, heart, and brain. “That inflammatory response is important to help kill and clear the spirochetes, but it causes collateral damage as well.”

5. INFECTIONS MAY BEGIN WITH A BULL'S-EYE.

The first symptom to look for in about 80 to 90 percent of Lyme cases is a telltale rash of an infected tick bite, called an erythema migrans (EM) rash, which looks a lot like a red bull's-eye, and usually appears at the site of a tick bite within seven to 14 days, according to the American Lyme Disease Foundation. However, the rash does not appear in every instance of Lyme disease, so if you’re bitten, you should visit a doctor immediately. You may also experience flu-like symptoms or joint pains in the first month after the bite.

6. DON'T WAIT TO GET TREATMENT.

If you don't see the tick bite, and don't treat early symptoms, the spirochetes continue to spread throughout your body and can cause more severe symptoms, including fatigue, stiff or aching neck, tingling or numbness in your extremities, and even paralysis of your face. Even more debilitating symptoms of later-stage Lyme disease can include severe headaches, painful arthritis and swelling of joints, cardiac abnormalities, and central nervous system debilitations leading to cognitive disorders.

7. IF CAUGHT EARLY, IT'S USUALLY HIGHLY TREATABLE …

When the disease is caught in its early stages, and treated with antibiotics, it’s curable, Sellati says. Even later stages of the disease can be treated, but the longer an infection goes untreated, the more severe the symptoms and damage can become.

8. … BUT SOME PATIENTS EXPERIENCE SYMPTOMS FOR MUCH LONGER.

Scientists are not entirely sure why a subset of patients have recurrent symptoms of the illness in the months and even years following treatment, known as post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome. “It’s not clear if there is a persistence of live replicating bacteria in some immune privileged niche where they’re protected from exposure to antibiotics,” Sellati says, or if it’s simply the subsequent inflammation stirred up in the body that refuses to go back to normal. “What drives that is not entirely clear.”

9. YOUR GENETICS MAY DICTATE YOUR TREATMENT.

Sellati’s lab has been exploring whether genetics plays a role in who recovers after treatment and who doesn’t. “We have some evidence that your genetic makeup can actually predispose you to developing post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome," Sellati says, and adds it will require more research. They believe they might be able to isolate genetic markers that will tell doctors if antibiotics alone will work, or if the patient might need additional treatment.

10. FEAR THE ENGORGED TICK (BUT DON'T PANIC).

The good news is, even if a tick bites you, if it isn’t yet fully engorged on your blood, chances are good it hasn’t been there long enough to transmit the spirochetes that lead to infection. However, it’s always better to be safe, and pay attention to any symptoms that occur thereafter. “The sooner you can remove a tick from your body, whether it’s feeding or not, the better. If the tick is feeding for less than 24 hours, the likelihood of being infected with Borellia is significantly reduced,” Sellati says.

11. AREAS WITH MICE HAVE MORE LYME DISEASE.

Wherever you find mice and deer you’re very likely to find ticks as well. In fact, Sellati says, mice in all forms—but especially the white-footed mouse—are what infectious researchers call a “maintenance reservoir.” Sellati says. “They maintain the bacteria in the wild so that new ticks can acquire it.” Since spirochetes tend to stay in the bloodstream of mice much longer than they do in humans, that’s how ticks have such an endless supply of the bacteria. “If you got rid of all the mice in the world, you would either come very close to or significantly reduce the population of Borellia in the environment. You’d have a significant decrease in Lyme,” he emphasizes.

12. YOU CAN TAKE SIMPLE STEPS TO PROTECT YOURSELF.

Wear clothes with the most coverage possible. Spray yourself with anti-tick sprays. But no matter what, always do a tick check after you return from the outdoors just to be safe. And if you start to feel any of the symptoms mentioned earlier within a month of a tick bite, don’t wait to visit your doctor.

13. CHECK YOUR CREVICES.

Ticks are not opposed to biting you wherever they can reach, but they have a preference for your warm, moist crevices, such as armpits, backs of the knee, groin, base of the head, and nape of your neck.

14. SKIP SOME OF THOSE "TIPS" FOR REMOVING TICKS THAT YOU'VE HEARD ABOUT.

No matter how many YouTube tutorials you’ve watched, Sellati recommends that you do not use heat, like a match or a lighter, to burn a tick off. The same goes for “goops” such as petroleum jelly, alcohol, or hand sanitizer. Since the spirochetes are transmitted through tick saliva, Sellati warns, “If you try to do those things, you’re only going to piss the tick off, and a pissed-off tick spits a lot, and you're more likely to get more bacteria into your bloodstream.”

15. INSTEAD, USE SLOW, STEADY PRESSURE—AND SOME TWEEZERS.

Take a small pair of forceps or tweezers, Sellati instructs, and gently grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible, “then pull the tick straight up slowly, which pulls the mouth part out of the skin, and then just dab the area with alcohol to disinfect.” A tick’s mouthparts are like tiny barbed hooks, designed to pierce the skin and stay there. “Then they have secretions that cement the mouthparts to the skin, because they have to feed over a long time and they don’t want to be knocked off while they sit and sip.”

12 Creative Ways to Spend Your FSA Money Before the Deadline

stockfour/iStock via Getty Images
stockfour/iStock via Getty Images

If you have a Flexible Spending Account (FSA), chances are, time is running out for you to use that cash. Depending on your employer’s rules, if you don’t spend your FSA money by the end of the grace period, you potentially lose some of it. Lost cash is never a good thing.

For those unfamiliar, an FSA is an employer-sponsored spending account. You deposit pre-tax dollars into the account, and you can spend that money on a number of health care expenses. It’s kind of like a Health Savings Account (HSA), but with a few big differences—namely, your HSA funds roll over from year to year, so there’s no deadline to spend it all. With an FSA, though, most of your funds expire at the end of the year. Bummer.

The good news is: The law allows employers to roll $500 over into the new year and also offer a grace period of up to two and a half months to use that cash (March 15). Depending on your employer, you might not even have that long, though. The deadline is fast approaching for many account holders, so if you have to use your FSA money soon, here are a handful of creative ways to spend it.

1. Buy some new shades.

Head to the optometrist, get an eye prescription, then use your FSA funds to buy some new specs or shades. Contact lenses and solution are also covered.

You can also buy reading glasses with your FSA money, and you don’t even need a prescription.

2. Try acupuncture.

Scientists are divided on the efficacy of acupuncture, but some studies show it’s useful for treating chronic pain, arthritis, and even depression. If you’ve been curious about the treatment, now's a good time to try it: Your FSA money will cover acupuncture sessions in some cases. You can even buy an acupressure mat without a prescription.

If you’d rather go to a chiropractor, your FSA funds cover those visits, too.

3. Stock up on staples.

If you’re running low on standard over-the-counter meds, good news: Most of them are FSA-eligible. This includes headache medicine, pain relievers, antacids, heartburn meds, and anything else your heart (or other parts of your body) desires.

There’s one big caveat, though: Most of these require a prescription in order to be eligible, so you may have to make an appointment with your doctor first. The FSA store tells you which over-the-counter items require a prescription.

4. Treat your feet.

Give your feet a break with a pair of massaging gel shoe inserts. They’re FSA-eligible, along with a few other foot care products, including arch braces, toe cushions, and callus trimmers.

In some cases, foot massagers or circulators may be covered, too. For example, here’s one that’s available via the FSA store, no prescription necessary.

5. Get clear skin.

Yep—acne treatments, toner, and other skin care products are all eligible for FSA spending. Again, most of these require a prescription for reimbursement, but don’t let that deter you. Your doctor is familiar with the rules and you shouldn’t have trouble getting a prescription. And, as WageWorks points out, your prescription also lasts for a year. Check the rules of your FSA plan to see if you need a separate prescription for each item, or if you can include multiple products or drug categories on a single prescription.

While we’re on the topic of faces, lip balm is another great way to spend your FSA funds—and you don’t need a prescription for that. There’s also no prescription necessary for this vibrating face massager.

6. Fill your medicine cabinet.

If your medicine cabinet is getting bare, or you don’t have one to begin with, stock it with a handful of FSA-eligible items. Here are some items that don’t require a prescription:

You can also stock up on first aid kits. You don’t need a prescription to buy those, and many of them come with pain relievers and other medicine.

7. Make sure you’re covered in the bedroom.

Condoms are FSA-eligible, and so are pregnancy tests, monitors, and fertility kits. Female contraceptives are also covered when you have a prescription.

8. Prepare for your upcoming vacation.

If you have a vacation planned this year, use your FSA money to stock up on trip essentials. For example:

9. Get a better night’s sleep.

If you have trouble sleeping, sleep aids are eligible, though you’ll need a prescription. If you want to try a sleep mask, many of them are eligible without a prescription. For example, there’s this relaxing sleep mask and this thermal eye mask.

For those nights you’re sleeping off a cold or flu, a vaporizer can make a big difference, and those are eligible, too (no prescription required). Bed warmers like this one are often covered, too.

Your FSA funds likely cover more than you realize, so if you have to use them up by the deadline, get creative. This list should help you get started, and many drugstores will tell you which items are FSA-eligible when you shop online.

10. Go to the dentist.

While basics like toothpaste and cosmetic procedures like whitening treatments aren’t FSA eligible, most of the expenses you incur at your dentist’s office are. That includes co-pays and deductibles as well as fees for cleanings, x-rays, fillings, and even the cost of braces. There are also some products you can buy over-the-counter without ever visiting the dentist. Some mouthguards that prevent you from grinding your teeth at night are eligible, as are cleaning solutions for retainers and dentures.

11. Try some new gadgets.

If you still have some extra cash to burn, it’s a great time to try some expensive high-tech devices that you’ve been curious about but might not otherwise want to splurge on. The list includes light therapy treatments for acne, vibrating nausea relief bands, electrical stimulation devices for chronic pain, cloud-connected stethoscopes, and smart thermometers.

12. Head to Amazon.

There are plenty of FSA-eligible items available on Amazon, including items for foot health, cold and allergy medication, eye care, and first-aid kits. Find out more details on how to spend your FSA money on Amazon here.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

Why Your Christmas Lights Always Get Tangled, According to Science

iStock
iStock

A Christmas tree isn't a Christmas tree without those pretty colored lights, right? OK, no problem. You stored them in a box marked "Xmas lights" 11 months ago. You know where the box is. Now you just have to open the box, grab the lights, and—

That's where it gets tricky. Unless you're very lucky, or extremely well organized, the lights are likely all tangled up; soon you're down on your hands and knees, struggling to untangle a spaghetti-like jumble. (And it's not just you: A couple of years ago, the British grocery chain Tesco hired temporary "Christmas light untanglers" for the holiday season.) But why are Christmas lights so prone to tangling in the first place—and can anything be done about it?

Why do Christmas lights get tangled in the first place?

There are really two separate problems, explains Colin Adams, a mathematician at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and the author of The Knot Book, an introduction to the mathematical theory of knots. First, the cord on which the lights are attached is prone to tangling—just as headphone and earbud cords are (or, in the past, telephone handset cords).

Several years ago, physicists Dorian Raymer and Douglas Smith, then at the University of California, San Diego, did a study to see just how easily cords can get tangled. They put bits of string of various lengths in a cube-shaped box, and then mechanically rotated the box so that the strings tumbled around, like socks in a dryer, repeating the experiment more than 3400 times. The first knots appeared within seconds. More than 120 different types of knots spontaneously formed during the experiment. They also found—perhaps not surprisingly—that the longer the string, the more likely it was to become knotted (few knots formed in strings shorter than 18 inches, they noted). As the length of the string increased, the probability of a knot forming approached 100 percent.

The material that the string (or cord) is made of is important too; a more flexible cord is more likely to tangle than a less flexible one. And while the length of the cord matters, so does its diameter: In general, long cords get tangled more easily than short ones, but a cord with a large diameter will be less flexible, which reduces the risk of knotting. In other words, it's the ratio of length to diameter that really matters. That's why a garden hose can get tangled—it's relatively stiff, but it's also very long compared to its diameter.

But that's not the end of the story. If a cord has a metal wire inside it—as traditional Christmas lights do—then it can acquire a sort of "natural curvature," Jay Miller, a senior research scientist at the Connecticut-based United Technologies Research Center, tells Mental Floss. That means that a wire that's been wrapped around a cylindrical spool, for example, will tend to retain that shape.

"Christmas lights are typically spooled for shipping or packing, which bends metal wire past its 'plastic limit,' giving it natural curvature approximately the size of the spool it was wound around," Miller says. Christmas lights can be even harder to straighten than other wound materials because they often contain a pair of intertwined wires, giving them an intrinsic twist.

And then there's the additional problem of the lights. "Christmas lights are doubly difficult, once things get tangled, because there are all of these little projections—the lights—sticking out of them," Adams says. "The lights get in the way of each other, and it makes it very difficult to pull one strand through another. That means once you're tangled, it's much harder to disentangle."

How do you fix tangled Christmas lights?

What, then, can be done? One option would be for manufacturers to make the cord out of a stiff yet elastic material—something that would more readily "bounce back" from the curvature that was imparted to it while in storage. A nickel-titanium alloy known as Nitinol might be a candidate, says Miller—but it's too expensive to be a practical choice. And anyway, the choice of material probably makes little difference as long as the lights still protrude from the cord. Perhaps the biggest breakthrough in recent years has been the proliferation of LED "rope lights" that don't employ traditional bulbs at all; rather, they use LEDs embedded within the rope-like cord itself. Of course, these can still get tangled up in the manner of a garden hose, but without those pesky protrusions, they're easier to untangle.

A simpler solution, says Adams, is to coil the lights very carefully when putting them away, ideally using something like twist-ties to keep them in place. (Martha Stewart has proposed something similar, using sheets of cardboard instead of twist-ties.)

Meanwhile, the mathematicians have some advice if you find yourself confronted with a hopelessly tangled, jumbled cord: Find one of the "free" ends, and work from there.

"Eventually," Adams assures us, "you will succeed."