'My Ear Pimple Turned Out To Be An Engorged Tick—And I Contracted Typhus From It'
Photo credit: Bryan Rowe Photo / @bryanrowephoto
From women's health
In November 2017 I returned from an incredible three day hike on the Scenic Rim, a beautiful stretch of rainforests and mountains in Queensland, Australia. But a few days after I returned, my ear felt sore. Before my hike, I had an ear infection in the same ear so I just thought it was working again.
When I left my flight back to Colorado, I actually discovered a tiny piece of clotted blood in my earlobe. That's funny! I thought. After 14 hours in the air, I was super dazed. In the chaos of getting out of my corridor, I only had a split second to look at the lump before I had to hurry.
Over the next few days my ear became quite swollen and tender. The irritated area where I found this blood stain looked more like a pimple and oozed through the hangover (yuck). I also had this burning sensation that would not go away. It felt like I always needed an ice pack on my ear.
What really scared me was when the lymph node on the side of my face just in front of my ear became very sore. This pain was way worse than what was going on in my ear and it really freaked me out. Before that, I had no idea that I even had a lymph node there (!).
About a week after my trip, I went to see the ambulance I saw about my initial ear infection.
She said it was nothing so I left. A few days later, the lymph node next to my ear became so painful that I couldn't sleep on that side of my face. At that moment I began to suspect that the piece of "blood" in my ear might actually have been something else - a tick.
The trail I was on about a week and a half earlier in Australia was covered in paralyzing ticks, those tiny, seed-like parasites that are responsible for about 95 percent of tick bites and most tick-borne diseases on the continent, according to the Australian Department of Health. Although tick bites are usually NBD if you remove the tick quickly, more serious problems such as paralysis or severe allergic reactions are possible if they stay there for a long time. Because of this, our guide warned us to look out for them.
The last day of our hike had been particularly flawed (some of us even found leeches on our legs). That evening, before I took a shower, I found a tick in my hiking clothes crawling around on the bathroom counter (keyword freakout). I don't think I was wearing an insect repellant that day because there weren't many mosquitos and I was wearing dark clothes - another no-no because it makes it much harder to see ticks on your body. Even so, I checked everywhere during my shower, including behind (but not in) my ears.
Now I started to solve the puzzle. What if my ear problems came from a tick bite? I googled "stuffed tick" - and yes, there it was. The pictures looked just like the hard piece I pulled out of my ear. Up close, it was the most disgusting thing I've ever seen.
I called my GP to share my concerns. After seeing a number of different doctors and trying a handful of antibiotics and a topical cream, I eventually joined an infectious disease specialist who immediately knew what was going on.
A few days later, the infectious disease doctor confirmed my suspicions * and * that I had contracted typhoid because of the tick bite.
He knew right away based on when my symptoms related to my last hike. Typhoid sounds scary, I know. But the doctor immediately assured me that I did not have "WWII typhoid" as he described (also known as epidemic typhoid, a disease rare today that in the past killed millions of people when it was spread by body lice during wartime and famine).
No, I have had Queensland Tick Typhoid (QTT), a tick-borne disease that usually causes mild symptoms like the ones I've dealt with - enlarged lymph nodes and fatigue, and a fever, headache, or rash. However, if left untreated, QTT can also lead to life-threatening complications like kidney failure or severe pneumonia (so it's pretty scary in itself!).
Fortunately, we recognized my case relatively quickly so I didn't have to worry about severe symptoms. After a round of the * right * antibiotic for typhoid fever, the swelling in my lymph nodes and the burning sensation in my ear finally started to subside and I was ready to go.
A lesson I've learned over and over is to trust your gut and put things together for yourself. Your doctor is probably doing his best, but at the end of the day, your intuition can serve you well with what pointers are relevant, what tests you might need, and who is the best for you. In my case, I found that I wasn't * only * having symptoms of recurring ear infections - something else was afoot.
Hell, stay away from ticks, but don't let that stop you from exploring them.
Although ticks are almost everywhere in the United States, I grew up in Washington state, where I've never seen a tick. Living in Boulder I had never seen one in the Rockies until the summer of 2020 when I found one crawling around in my base shift as I changed and my friend and I immediately started undressing and checking . She said she would rather have a bear in the camp than a tick and after my fears of typhus, I totally agree.
Now, in the buggy field, I'm a big advocate of high-performance tick repellants that are high in DEET (the CDC recommends repellants with at least 20 percent DEET to reduce the chances of ingesting bloodsuckers). However, I know that many people prefer more natural options (in which case, repellants made with picaridin, a derivative of black pepper, can be a good alternative).
While you're out and about, I recommend that you wear light-colored clothing and regularly check for areas where ticks can nestle, such as the waist of your pants, under your socks, and your ears and hair. If you can help, don't brush against tall grass or branches, which are the best places for ticks to attach.
As for tick removal, the sooner you get it off, the better. If possible, use tweezers (or cover your fingers with a tissue or plastic bag) to hold the tick as close to your skin as possible. Then slowly lift it away and clean the bite area. If you experience symptoms such as a rash or flu-like symptoms, get treatment as soon as possible.
But the best advice I can offer is not to let this kind of thing stop you from experiencing the great outdoors. It's worth it. Sometimes when you get home you just have an even more interesting story to tell.
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