In spite of the large amount of time I spend outdoors, I never give a second thought to things like being mauled by a bear or bitten by a venomous snake, mostly because the possibility of such attacks are extremely remote.
There is one creature in the woods and fields of Pennsylvania that truly is out for blood - the deer tick. But while the actual bite of this tiny arachnid does little physical damage, the possibility of its transmitting Lyme disease to the victim is ample cause for concern.
Lyme disease derives its name from the town of Lyme, Connecticut, where an outbreak of the disease was identified in 1975. The disease is caused by at least three species of bacteria and is transmitted to humans by several species of hard-bodied ticks, commonly known as deer ticks, that are infected with the bacteria. As the name implies, deer are one of the primary hosts for the adult stage of this parasitic pest.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, populations of white-tailed deer reached all-time highs in most states throughout the Northeast, especially in suburban and metropolitan areas where little or no hunting pressure was available to keep the animals in check.
High numbers of deer living around high numbers of humans has now made Lyme disease the most common tick-borne disease in the Northern Hemisphere. May to September is the period when most infections occur.
For most victims, the first sign of being infected with Lyme disease is a telltale circular rash at the point of the bite. This rash typically resembles a bullseye pattern, with a red spot surrounded by distinct red ring. Symptoms usually appear within a week or two after the victim is bitten by an infected tick, although it is possible for the effects to show in as soon as a few days or as late as a month or even more. The early symptoms tend to be somewhat flu-like with fever, headaches, muscle aches and fatigue.
Fortunately, Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics if caught in the early stages. If the disease goes untreated, however, further symptoms can develop, affecting the joints, heart or nervous system. The symptoms at this stage of the disease are much more serious, often becoming painful, debilitating and difficult to treat.
Compared to other common species of hard ticks that typically attack dogs or livestock, adult deer ticks are quite small. To make matters worse, the immature or nymphal stage of the deer tick is the one most likely to transmit the infection to humans. Nymphal deer ticks are tiny, about one-sixteenth of an inch, or roughly the size of a lower-case letter "o" in the text on this page. The tick emits secretions during its bite that prevents the victim from feeling any pain or sensation from it, so it's possible for a bite to go undetected.
Because only about one percent of detected deer tick bites result in Lyme disease and the parasite must be attached to the host for at least 24 hours to transmit the infection, early detection is important. Check yourself thoroughly for attached ticks, especially on your lower legs and arms, after returning from outdoor activities.
Deer ticks can be difficult to remove because of their small size, so it is often advisable to seek medical attention. It is sometimes possible to pull the tick free by grasping it with fine-pointed tweezers as close to the skin as possible.
Be careful that none of the head or mouthparts remains embedded in the skin.
Deer tick infestations are reported to be high in some areas so far this season, so it's worth taking a few precautions to prevent being bitten by these parasites when afield.
Wear long pants and tuck the cuffs inside your shoes or boots if possible. If not, spray your socks and pant legs with insect repellant.