With the blacklegged deer tick more common in Pennsylvania than ever before, it is important to know the warning signs of Lyme disease.
According to a report issued by the state Department of Environmental Protection on April 21, the deer tick has been observed in all 67 counties of Pennsylvania for the first time ever. A similar study in the mid-1960s found no specimens.
“It is pretty common in our area, especially for people who are working outside or playing or hunting,” Dr. Muhammad Saifullah, emergency room director at Schuylkill Medical Center-South Jackson Street, said Thursday.
Saifullah said he has been seeing one or two people a day since spring started coming to the emergency room with a tick.
The blacklegged tick is the primary carrier of Lyme disease, an infectious disease that can cause fever, fatigue, headache, muscle aches and joint pain. The number of annually reported cases of Lyme disease in the United States has increased about 25-fold since reporting began in 1982, according to the state Department of Health. In the United States, the disease is mostly localized to the northeastern, mid-Atlantic and upper Midwest regions and in northwestern California.
Nearly 4,000 cases have been reported annually in Pennsylvania, with the highest incidence of disease being located in the southeastern parts of the state.
“Ticks can’t fly or jump, so basically they are attached to shrubs or leaves and when people brush up to them, they attach themselves to them,” Saifullah said.
A trip to the emergency room may not be required if someone finds a tick on them early enough. Saifullah said that person just has to use a pair of tweezers to “firmly pull it straight out.”
“Do not try to take it out with your bare hands,” he said. “If you squoosh it and get the blood on your skin, you can still get the disease.”
Saifullah explained that Lyme disease is transmitted through the bacteria in the guts of the tick while it is feeding. The insect needs to be attached to the skin for more than 24 to 36 hours for that to happen, he said.
“The bite itself does not cause the transmission,” Saifullah said.
If a tick has been attached for that long, Saifullah said antibiotics are given to patients to use for 10 to 14 days. Lyme disease can be readily cured with oral antibiotics. However, if left untreated it may progress to late-stage arthritic or nervous system complications requiring more intensive therapy.
Lyme disease has three stages, Saifullah said.
From the first two days to up to two weeks, a person may develop a rash.
“A typical Lyme disease rash is like a bull’s-eye pattern,” Saifullah said.
The rash may be accompanied by flu-like symptoms, he said.
In the later stages of the disease, a person may experience joint swelling and pain followed by nerve and heart problems. If people see a rash at the site of a tick bite, Saifullah recommended they see a doctor to rule out Lyme disease. If someone is experiencing joint swelling without any history or trauma, they should get tested for Lyme disease.
“Prevention is the best medicine,” he said. “If you are going outside, use insect repellent. Put your pants inside your shoes. Wearing light-colored clothing can help because then ticks can be easily spotted.”
For more information on the blacklegged deer tick, visit DEP’s website at www.depweb.state.pa.us. For more information on Lyme disease, visit the state Department of Health website at www.health.pa.us.