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Avoid getting ‘tick’ed off the rest of this summer

By Walt Young

For the Mirror

One ever-present nuisance associated with summertime outdoor activities can be encounters with ticks.

The idea of one of those pesky, blood-sucking arachnids attached to your body is creepy enough but combine that thought with the possibility of contracting Lyme disease or some other tick-borne ailment, and ticks become both repulsive and dangerous. The heavy tick infestation we have experienced here in the Northeast is somewhat of a new phenomenon.

I grew up in the country, and as kids, we spent many hours outdoors every day in the summer, from playing ball in the backyard to tramping about the nearby woods and fields. For as much time as my siblings, friends and I spent out there, however, I don’t recall anyone ever being bitten by a tick. That situation has changed dramatically nowadays, and it seems like every few months I talk to someone who has contracted Lyme disease.

Lyme disease is caused by bacteria transmitted by the blacklegged tick, commonly known as the deer tick. These parasites are incredibly tiny, sometimes not much bigger than the period at the end of this sentence, which is why they can easily go unnoticed after they attach to a host. Wood ticks and other common species of ticks are much larger and easier to detect. Ironically, deer do not contract nor transmit Lyme disease. White-footed mice and chipmunks are the primary carriers of the Lyme disease bacteria. Deer do carry infected ticks, however, especially in the fall when female deer ticks tend to feed on deer in preparation for laying their eggs. Dogs, cats, cattle and horses can all be infected with Lyme disease.

Lyme disease causes chronic illness with symptoms including fever, fatigue, headache, muscle aches and joint pain. In many cases, a characteristic bull’s-eye rash will occur around the area of the tick bite. Early detection and treatment is important because infections of Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics. If left untreated, Lyme disease can cause serious complications and damage to joints, the heart and nervous system. Because of my outdoor lifestyle, my doctor recently advised me I should get tested for Lyme disease every six months as a precaution.

Here in Pennsylvania, we have the dubious distinction of leading the nation in confirmed cases of Lyme disease with between 4,000 to 5,000 cases each year. All 67 counties in Pennsylvania have reported incidences of Lyme disease, with the highest numbers of cases occurring in the southeastern part of the state.

Because staying inside this time of year is not an option for most of us, taking some basic precautions is the best way to avoid tick bites. Walking around or through vegetation or tall grass increases the chance for picking up ticks as does sitting on the ground. Wear light-colored clothing with long-sleeved shirts and long pants whenever possible and check yourself often to spot any hitchhiking ticks. Applying insect repellents containing DEET can also be effective for warding off ticks. Use tick repellent and tick-repellent collars on dogs and cats because pets can bring ticks inside with them, which could then come in contact with humans.

Carefully check yourself, children and pets for ticks after any outdoor excursion. Ticks tend to attach themselves at tight spots under clothing like armpits or around the beltline. If a tick has attached itself, removing the pest as soon as possible is advisable, because a tick typically must be attached to a host for 36 to 48 hours to transmit the Lyme disease infection.

Ticks can be carefully removed with pair of tweezers. The Pennsylvania Game Commission offers the following advice for removing ticks: “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 mouthparts to break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, remove the mouthparts with tweezers. If you are unable to remove the mouth easily with clean tweezers, leave it alone and let the skin heal. After removing the tick, thoroughly disinfect the bite and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water.

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.

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