The smallest ticks are nymphs and are the most infective. They feed on mice and pick up Lyme disease bacteria from them. The medium-sized ticks are in the adult phase, while the largest ones are engorged after having fed on a host.
Preventing tick bites, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends:
● Avoid wooded and brushy areas with high grass and leaf litter.
● Walk in the center of trails.
● Use insect repellents that contain 20 percent to 30 percent DEET on exposed skin and clothing for protection that lasts up to several hours. Always follow product instructions.
● Parents should apply this product to their children, avoiding hands, eyes and the mouth.
● Treat clothing and gear such as boots, pants, socks and tents with products containing 0.5 percent permethrin. Its protection lasts through several washings. Pre-treated clothing is available and may be protective for longer periods.
● Check your body for ticks after spending time outdoors.
Three Western Pennsylvania counties had some of the state’s highest numbers of Lyme disease cases last year, according to data recently released by the state Department of Health.
Butler County tallied the most cases in the state with 641. Westmoreland was third with 577 cases. Allegheny had 403, ranking eighth.
Overall, there were 11,443 Lyme cases in the state in 2016, close to the 12,092 unofficial total released in December by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
The Pennsylvania data show that Lyme continues to be on the rise. There were roughly 2,000 more cases of Lyme disease reported in 2016 than 2015, when there was 9,427. In addition, Pennsylvania led the nation in Lyme cases last year, according to the CDC.
“We know that mosquito and tick-borne illnesses are part of living in Pennsylvania,” Dr. Rachel Levine, acting health secretary and physician general, said in a statement. “But there are easy ways to protect yourself and reduce your risk of illness.”
Lyme symptoms can be debilitating. Common symptoms include a fever, chills, joint aches, swollen lymph nodes, headache and fatigue and sometimes a rash that looks like a bullseye from the tick bite. Most people recover with antibiotic treatment. If untreated, the infection can lead to arthritis and other severe problems.
Tina Prins, 46, is vice president of marketing for PA Lyme Resource Network, a statewide Lyme disease advocacy, education and support group. She has suffered from chronic Lyme symptoms since being diagnosed in 2013 when she pulled a tick off of the back of her left knee.
Her symptoms have ranged from vertigo and arthritis to brain fog and exhaustion.
“At times, I felt like I was a 90 year old,” said Prins, who lives in Mechanicsburg. “Lights would bring me to my knees. It hurt to grip my hand around a steering wheel. Now, I have some good days and bad days.”
Prins said her doctor surmised that she may have been bitten by a tick as a child and the second bite exacerbated her symptoms.
“I was probably bitten more than once and my immune system was strong enough to put it down,” she said. “I would say the last bite made everything worse. It’s a very complex disease. A lot of people who have Lyme will test negative, leading to misdiagnoses.”
The causative agent of Lyme disease is the bacterium Borrelia borgdorferi and it is spread through the bite of a species of ticks, commonly known as deer ticks or blacklegged ticks, in the Northeast. Deer ticks have been found in all of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.
“In the overwhelming majority of cases, the tick must be attached for at least 36 to 48 hours before it is able to transmit the Lyme bacterium to a person,” said Dr. Thomas Walsh, an Allegheny Health Network infectious disease specialist. “Ticks embedded for less than 36 hours are remarkably unlikely to cause Lyme disease.”
One key in protection against Lyme disease is avoiding tick-infested habitats, including areas with tall grass or dense shrubbery. Repellents and protective clothing are also helpful, along with frequent tick checks after being outside.
Homeowners can minimize tick habitats in their yards by raking leaves, cutting grass frequently, removing weeds and removing dead plant material.
Those who find a tick on their body, or suspect they’ve found one, should consult a doctor.