Summertime calls for tick awareness, and vigilance over tick-borne diseases

by Kate Evans

Shown clockwise in this CDC tick montage are the Asian longhorned tick, the Lone Star tick, the black-legged tick (the deer tick) and the American dog tick.

Plentiful spring rains encouraged an environment in which ticks are thriving this year. Health officials are advising people to be on the lookout for ticks when outdoors.

Keep checking for ticks on yourself, your children and pets and watching for symptoms of tick bites, Lyme disease and other tick-borne illness in yourself and family members.

The Eastern Panhandle is the heart of Lyme disease in West Virginia and the disease is extremely prevalent in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Lyme disease symptoms

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by a bite from the deer tick, also known as the black-legged tick. Lyme disease symptoms can include fever, headache, flu-like symptoms, swollen lymph nodes and muscle and joint pains for up to a week with no obvious cause. Symptoms can begin three to 30 days after a tick bite.

Some patients get a very red oval rash that’s 4-12 inches in size. Sometimes that oval rash will have an outer ring with a clearing inside and a red center, giving it a bull’s eye appearance. Around 10%-20% of patients have no rash.

If untreated, Lyme disease can spread to the joints, heart and nervous system and in rare cases, it can be fatal. If you think you’ve been exposed to Lyme disease and have symptoms, especially a rash or a rash with a bull’s eye, see your doctor as soon as possible. The sooner Lyme disease is treated with antibiotics, the better.

Doctor weighs in

Area physician Dr. Matthew Hahn of River Bend Family Medicine said he has seen a lot of tick bites and a few cases of Lyme disease this season. Hahn saw multiple cases of L yme disease a day five years ago but the number of cases has lessened since then. He saw one case of Lone Star tick disease years five years ago.

Hahn said the relative size of the tick is the most important thing along with how long was it attached to the body before it was removed. Hahn said that in most cases it can take a day and a half to two days for a tick to transmit Lyme disease.

The deer ticks that carry Lyme disease are very small- less than .08 inches in size. Adult deer ticks can also transmit Lyme disease but are usually found before they’ve had a chance to spread the disease since they’re larger.

If people have the bull’s-eye oval rash, they don’t need testing for Lyme disease, Hahn stressed. If they see the rash, they treat with antibiotics. Doxycycline takes care of most tick-borne illnesses. Most patients with Lyme disease respond to a full course of Doxycycline,

“We’ve had zero patients not respond to antibiotics if we were fairly certain it was Lyme disease,” Hahn noted.

Early testing can be inaccurate, Hahn advised. For the 10-15% that don’t have a rash a test is appropriate, but he’ll treat for Lyme disease without a test.

Dr. Hahn said he was outdoors cutting trees and found five ticks on himself in one week. When he wears long pants and sprays his shoes and the bottom of his pants with tick repellent, he doesn’t get any ticks on him.

Hahn said that this is a very high volume Lyme disease area and that anyone who spends a lot of time outside should be careful to protect themselves against ticks.

Most cases of Lyme disease occur in the late spring through early fall, but it can happen year-round since ticks can remain active during mild winters.

Shower and check yourself as soon as you come in from outdoors and use DEET or OFF for tick prevention.

Other tick-borne illnesses

While the majority of area tick-borne illnesses are Lyme disease cases, there are sporadic cases of rare tick-borne diseases such Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia, ehrlichiosis, and anaplasmosis regionally.

Symptoms of most other tick-borne diseases are similar to Lyme disease with fever, headache, muscle aches, joint pain and fatigue.

Lone star tick

This CDC graphic shows the different life stages of the Lone Star tick.

The Lone Star tick can cause some people to develop an allergic reaction to red meat. Red meat allergy symptoms can include rash, hives, difficulty breathing, dizziness, nausea, severe stomach pain and throat swelling. An adult female Lone Star tick has an identifying white spot on its back.

The Lone Star tick can also cause a rash very similar to the Lyme disease rash. Patients may also experience fatigue, headache, fever, and muscle pains.

Powassan virus

Powassan virus, a very rare and serious tick disease, has been reported in the north-eastern United States and the Great Lakes area, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The virus can cause encephalitis. Powassan virus and the tick-borne Heartland virus can be spread by Asian longhorned ticks.

Heartland virus

The Lone Star tick can also spread the Heartland virus. According to the CDC, the symptoms are fever, fatigue, decreased appetite, headache, nausea, diarrhea and muscle or joint pain. Some people also have lower white blood cell counts, lower platelet counts and elevated liver enzymes.

Many patients with Heartland virus have needed hospitalization, but most have fully recovered. Symptoms can take up to two weeks to appear after a tick bite.

The best way to prevent Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses is to avoid exposure to ticks. A void wooded areas and high grass, use tick repellents and remove ticks before they become attached.

Removing ticks

Remove ticks carefully as soon as they’re discovered. Use a fine-tipped pair of tweezers and pull upward with steady, even pressure. Clean the tick bite site and wash your hands. Don’t crush a tick with your fingers.

Check for ticks daily on yourself, kids and pets. Be sure to check unusual places such as between the toes, inside the belly button and behind the ears. Use tick control products on pets.

Sources: The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Maryland Division of Natural Resources, the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention websites.

This CDC tick photo shows the deer tick or black-legged tick that carries Lyme disease, the Lone Star tick and the American dog tick that carries Rocky Mountain spotted fever. It also depicts an engorged female deer tick.