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More ticks mean more bites

| Wednesday, March 28, 2012

When Donna Fisher's 12-year-old son, Matthew, woke up one morning complaining of back pain, she thought he had just slept awkwardly.

"I started to rub his back and he said, 'You have to stop — that hurts,' " said Fisher, a New Kensington resident.

When Fisher called to check on him later that day, Matthew said his older brother, Sean, told him he had a blackhead on his back.

"That's when I started to think something wasn't right," she said. "He's only 12 — he wouldn't have a blackhead yet."

Fisher later inspected her son's back, finding what has become an all-too-often annoyance around the Alle-Kiski Valley: a tick.

"In my own practice of medicine, it seems there have been an inordinate amount of tick bites recently," said Dr. Thomas McClure, chief medical officer at Allegheny Valley Hospital in Harrison. "I actually just removed one from a patient a couple of days ago."

McClure said patients should remove the tick as quickly as possible, and to do it at home if they feel comfortable enough to do so.

"If people remove them right away, there's a chance you don't have anything," he said. "If it's removed in less than 48 hours, you have a less than 1 percent chance of getting Lyme disease."

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that spreads through blacklegged tick bites. Symptoms range from head and muscle pain to more serious issues like heart and brain problems.

McClure said it takes a couple of days for the tick to spread the disease to a human once the bite occurs.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's most recent data, there were about 23,000 cases of Lyme disease in the United States in 2010.

Fisher didn't want to take the chance of waiting to get Sean to a doctor.

"As soon as I saw it was a tick, I got the tweezers and plucked it out," she said.

Fisher said she thinks Matthew got the tick from playing in the woods behind the family's Mount Vernon home.

More ticks, more bites

Steve Jacobs, an urban entomologist at Penn State, said a resurgence in the tick population in Western Pennsylvania has resulted in a large number of tick bites in the region.

"In the last five years, we've started to see ticks show up in the western counties," he said. "The deer tick just recently started taking foothold out there.

"The tick is re-establishing itself."

Jacobs said the warm winter was actually harmful to ticks.

"The mild winter made a deleterious effect on the tick population," he said.

Bill Todaro, entomologist with the Allegheny County Health Department, said even though there is an increase of ticks in the region, it hasn't corresponded in a higher rate of Lyme disease, yet.

"Not all ticks carry Lyme disease," he said. "We haven't seen any reports of a high increase in Lyme disease at the health department."

What to do if bitten

McClure said ticks can be tough to get off of your skin.

"You have to make sure you pull it straight out," he said. "Make sure you get the head and the jaws off."

McClure said home remedies such as smothering the tick in Vaseline or burning it off don't work.

Once the tick is removed, McClure recommends taking it to your doctor to determine if it carries Lyme disease.

He also recommends getting checked by a doctor.

"You have to look for a particular skin rash," he said. "That's why doctors want to examine you. In patients who are affected, the rash occurs about 85 percent of the time."

The rash looks like a bull's-eye, McClure said.

McClure said the earlier Lyme disease is detected, the easier it is to treat.

"Within the first 72 hours, a dose of a strong antibiotic can prevent Lyme disease," he said. "The longer it does undiagnosed, the harder it can be to treat."

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Additional Information:

How to prevent tick bites

Those worried about preventing tick bites while outdoors should:

-- Avoid areas where ticks are most common, such as wooded and grassy areas.

-- Wear long sleeves, long pants, and socks. Also apply repellent with DEET to skin and clothing.

-- Check your body and your children for ticks daily.

-- Shower soon after being outdoors.

-- Remove plants from your yard that attract deer.

-- Keep play areas and playground equipment away from away from shrubs, bushes, and other vegetation.

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