A gorgeous spring day simply shouldn’t be wasted indoors.
But enjoying the state’s scenic beauty and plethora of outdoor recreational opportunities comes with its risks.
Pennsylvania leads the nation in confirmed cases of Lyme disease, a tick-borne illness that poses a serious human health risk that is heightened for those who spend more time outdoors.
So when heading outside to enjoy those perfect days, outdoors enthusiasts should remember that taking a few simple precautions can greatly reduce the risk of picking up ticks that might carry Lyme disease.
About Lyme disease
Lyme disease is a chronic illness transmitted through the bite of an infected blacklegged tick, also known as a deer tick. Symptoms include fever, fatigue, headache, muscle aches and joint pain, and in about 85 percent of cases, a bull’s-eye rash will appear around the bite.
When detected early, Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics. Left untreated, the disease can spread to the joints, heart and nervous system.
Early diagnosis is important in preventing late-stage complications. Classic signs of untreated cases can include migratory pain or arthritis, impaired motor and sensory skills and an enlarged heart.
Pennsylvania has led the nation in confirmed cases of Lyme disease for three straight years. While Lyme disease has been found in each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, the highest incidence of the disease is in the southeastern part of the state.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 4,981 cases of Lyme disease in Pennsylvania in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available. That’s an increase from the 4,146 cases confirmed in the Commonwealth in 2012, but still lower than the 4,739 confirmed cases in 2011.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health recently launched “Don’t Let a Tick Make You Sick,” a campaign aimed at raising Lyme-disease awareness in the Commonwealth.
Hunters, hikers, anglers and others spending time outdoors are among the most likely to pick up the ticks that carry Lyme disease because they spend hours upon hours in the state’s fields and forest.
Most pick up ticks by brushing against vegetation, or by sitting in one position for lengthy periods.
Hunters and trappers who handle game also are susceptible.
People can reduce their risk of contracting Lyme disease by using insect repellent, preferably one containing DEET, and using it as directed by the manufacturer. Tick repellent or repelling collars also are important for pets. Dogs can contract Lyme disease, and all pets can carry ticks indoors where they might come in contact with you.
Tucking in your shirt, tucking your pants legs into your socks, or wearing pants with leg tie-offs improve the chances a tick won’t be able to make it onto your body in the first place.
Another strategy is to avoid contact with the dense bushes and tall grass that are among the places where ticks live.
Checking for and removing ticks
Because ticks can live just about anywhere, and like to latch onto people and pets, everyone who spends time outdoors should check themselves for ticks once back inside. Children who have been playing outside should be checked for ticks by their parents or guardians.
Store clothes worn outdoors in a container until they can be washed to reduce the chances a tick will get loose in the house. Use a mirror in inspecting yourself for ticks. Ticks like tight places, and often are found in the armpits and along the beltline.
Taking a hot shower within two hours of returning from the field also can have a big impact on decreasing Lyme disease risk, and could even prevent transmission.
If you find a tick on your body, or on a child or pet, it’s recommended the tick be removed carefully with a set of fine-tipped tweezers. Removing ticks with your bare hands should be avoided, and when using tweezers, you can protect your fingers with a tissue, paper towel, or medical gloves.
Grasp the tick as close to the skin surface as possible and pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don’t twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouth-parts to break off and remain in the skin.
If this happens, remove the mouth-parts with tweezers. If you are unable to remove the mouth easily with clean tweezers, leave it alone and let the skin heal.
Avoid folklore remedies such as “painting” the tick with nail polish or petroleum jelly, or using heat to make the tick detach from the skin. Your goal is to remove the tick as quickly as possible – not waiting for it to detach.
Anyone bitten by a tick should watch the area where the tick was attached for the next month or so. If a rash develops at the site from which the tick was removed, or elsewhere on the body, consult a physician.
Deer and deer ticks
While the blacklegged tick also is called the deer tick, and adult female blacklegged ticks feed preferentially on deer in autumn to build up energy to lay eggs, deer are dead-end hosts for the Lyme disease bacteria.
They do not infect ticks with the bacteria that cause Lyme disease nor do they contract the disease when an infected tick feeds on them. They play no direct role in the transmission cycle.
White-footed mice and chipmunks are the primary reservoirs for Lyme disease transmission, and many wild birds and mammals in North America have been found with the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Domestic animals including dogs, cats, cattle and horses also can become infected.
The blacklegged tick is the primary vector for Lyme disease, but other tick species and biting insects such as mosquitoes, deer flies and horse flies also can carry the bacteria, though it remains unclear how readily they transmit the bacteria to new hosts.
While deer do not transmit the disease, they still might carry infected ticks, and landowners can take a few precautions to help keep deer and ticks away from homes.
Ticks can be discouraged through yardwork to maintain vegetation around homes, and homeowners can help keep deer from their yards by not feeding them, constructing physical barriers to discourage them or putting in deer-resistant plants.
Bait boxes that treat wild rodents with acaricide, an insecticide that kills ticks, also are available for home use. Properly used, these boxes have been shown to reduce ticks around homes by more than 50 percent. The treatment is similar to control fleas and ticks on pets.
How the Game Commission is helping
Each year, the Game Commission uses controlled burns to improve wildlife habitat on state game lands throughout Pennsylvania. More than 5,000 acres under the Game Commission’s control were treated with this method in 2014.
While fire is prescribed to regenerate grasses and restore young forests, another benefit is the effective immediate removal of ticks from the areas that are burned.
A study by the Game Commission on one tract of state game lands showed an 88 percent reduction in the blacklegged tick population following prescribed fire, and the population remained lower there in the few years following the burn.
Because prescribed fire is a productive and cost-effective tool for managing wildlife habitat, the Game Commission will continue with burns at additional tracts each year.
“Springtime in Pennsylvania is a thing of beauty, and there are plenty of chances to get out there and enjoy it in any number of ways,” said Game Commission Executive Director R. Matthew Hough. “Our nearly 1.5 million-acre system of state game lands and the about 2.2 million acres of private land managed by the Game Commission offer some of the best hunting, fishing and hiking opportunities available in the Commonwealth. But it’s important those who enjoy the beauty of Penn’s Woods also remain aware of the Lyme-disease risks associated with spending time outdoors.
“Take the time to take precautions that prevent ticks from hitching a ride home, and always thoroughly check for ticks when you return from the outdoors,” Hough said. “By following these few simple steps, you can help to ensure that the rest of your days afield will be enjoyable.”