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Ticked Off: Understanding & Preventing Lyme Disease

By Kristy Warren

Pennsylvania now consistently leads the country in number of Lyme disease cases, making prevention more important than ever. Learn how to protect yourself and pets. 

The black-legged tick (ixodes scapularis) is responsible for most cases of Lyme disease in Pennsylvania. While it is sometimes referred to as "the deer tick," it is known to bite many different types of animals. Since the 1960s, the black-legged tick population has boomed, becoming the most common type of tick in PA.

More Lyme-carrying ticks mean more opportunities to transmit Lyme disease to people, pets, and wildlife. 

What is Lyme disease?

Lyme disease is an infection caused by bacteria (borrelia burgdorferi) transmitted through the bite of a black-legged tick. If left untreated, the infection can spread throughout the body, affecting your heart, joints, and even your nervous system.

How is it spread?

In the northeast, Lyme disease is spread by the black-legged tick, which carries the Lyme-causing bacteria. While both immature ticks (nymphs) and fully-grown adult ticks can spread the bacteria, most people are infected by nymphs. Because nymphs are so small (less than 2 mm), they are harder to see and remove, making them more likely to stay attached for the necessary 36 – 48 hours typically needed to transmit the Lyme disease-causing bacteria.

Nymphs are most active in spring and summer with adult ticks more active in the cooler months.

Ticks “quest” for their prey—swaying with their legs outstretched to attach to whatever brushes by and are commonly found in long grass, dense woods, shrubbery, and underbrush. When attaching, ticks camouflage themselves in less visible areas like the scalp, armpit, and groin.

What can you do to protect yourself?

Black-legged ticks are found in every county in Pennsylvania, and they are active for much of the year. The best treatment is prevention. 

Preventing Lyme Disease Laurel resize

 

Dos and Don’ts of Tick Removal:

DON’T panic.

DON’T wait for the tick to detach or delay removing it.

DON’T twist, crush, or jerk the tick during removal, as this can cause parts of the tick to break off and remain lodged in the skin.

DON’T burn the tick with a lit match, paint it with nail polish or alcohol, or attempt to suffocate the tick with petroleum jelly. These methods can actually cause the tick to burrow in further or regurgitate the infected bacteria into the skin.

DO use tweezers or a tick-removing tool to apply steady pressure and carefully remove the entire tick, including the head.

DO dispose of live ticks into a sealed container with alcohol to kill the tick or flush it down the toilet.

DO clean the affected area thoroughly with soap and water and rubbing alcohol.

DO call the doctor if you’re unable to successfully remove the tick or are concerned about how long it was attached.

 

Lyme Disease Symptoms:

One of the common signs of Lyme disease is the erythema migrans (EM) rash, which sometimes presents in the shape of target or “bull’s eye.” This rash occurs in 70 – 80% of Lyme disease patients, but not all.

Other common early symptoms include:

  • Headache or neck stiffness, worsening with time
  • Fatigue
  • Fever and/or chills
  • Muscle and joint aches
  • Swollen lymph nodes

Later signs and symptoms:

  • Severe arthritis in joints
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nerve pain / shooting pains
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Short-term memory issues
  • Facial palsy (drooping facial muscles)

Treatment:

Patients in the early stages of Lyme disease typically recover quickly and completely after a regimen of oral antibiotics. Some patients, particularly those in later stages of Lyme disease, may recover more slowly and experience symptoms such as fatigue or joint aches over a more extended period of time. This is sometimes referred to as “Post-treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome” and its cause is not yet fuly understood.

However, these symptoms may also be the result of separate illnesses or conditions with similar or overlapping symptoms, so it is important to discuss any lingering concerns with your doctor.

If you are having difficulty to successfully removing a tick, suspect it has attached for longer than 36+ hours, or are showing any of the symptoms described above, call your family doctor.

Need an appointment? Call the Laurel Health Centers at 1-833-LAURELHC to see a healthcare expert at a center close to you. The right choice is right here!

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