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Health

Tick season is here; learn how to prevent Lyme disease

| Monday, March 12, 2018, 10:54 a.m.
A free screening of 'Under Our Skin,” an award-winning 2008 documentary exploring the Lyme disease epidemic, is set for 6 p.m. March 23 in the Monroeville Senior Citizen Center.
Tribune-Review
A free screening of 'Under Our Skin,” an award-winning 2008 documentary exploring the Lyme disease epidemic, is set for 6 p.m. March 23 in the Monroeville Senior Citizen Center.
Illustration of a tick.
Jason Whitley | Myrtle Beach Sun-News
Illustration of a tick.

Don't look now, but flea and tick season is here.

And that means being extra vigilant about ticks and tick bites.

Ticks are known carriers of Lyme disease. If a human is bitten by an affected tick, the symptoms can be debilitating and include fever, fatigue, headache, muscle aches, joint pain and possibly a bull's eye rash, according to the state Department of Health.

“For the past six years, our Commonwealth has led the country with the most new cases of Lyme disease, with more than 12,000 state residents contracting the disease in 2016,” says Julia Wagner, president of the PA Lyme Resources Network, a statewide network whose mission is to raise awareness of Lyme disease.

“For the past four reported years, cases in Pennsylvania have increased by 25 percent each year,” Wagner says.

State statistics also show the number of Lyme disease cases are on the rise in Western Pennsylvania. In Allegheny County, for example, there were 278 incidents in 2015. A year later, however, there were 403 cases. It was a similar story in Westmoreland County. The state said 363 cases were reported in 2015, while there were 577 a year later. Washington County had 80 cases in 2015 and nearly doubled that number 12 months later with 145 cases. Butler County had 442 cases in 2015 and 641 cases in 2016, the state said.

“Due to under-reporting, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) estimates annual ... cases to be 10 times greater, or 120,000 cases of which approximately 30,000 are children,” Wagner says.

The CDC has yet to release 2017 Lyme disease statistics.

Adult ticks are the most active in March through May and can be active any time the temperature gets above freezing. According to the CDC, Lyme disease in this area of the country is spread by the black-legged, or deer tick. Most humans are infected through the bites of immature ticks called nymphs. Nymphs are 2 millimeters in size and hard to see. They feed during the spring and summer months.

Adult ticks also can transmit Lyme disease bacteria, but they are much larger and more likely to be removed before they can infect a person.

Ticks can attach to any part of the human body but are often found in hard-to-see areas such as the groin, armpits and scalp, the CDC said. In most cases, the tick must be attached for 36 to 48 hours or more before the Lyme disease bacteria can be transmitted.

Complicating matters is the fact Lyme disease is hard to diagnose because it mimics the symptoms of other diseases such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, Parkinson's, chronic fatigue Syndrome and lupus, to name a few.

“In the earliest stage, the diagnosis is critical, meaning that supportive blood tests can be falsely negative which is why it is important to see your doctor,” says Dr. Michelle Paulson, an infectious disease specialist at Allegheny Health Network.

“This early stage often includes the rash that is often associated with Lyme disease called erythema migrans,” Paulson says. “It can look like a bull's-eye in some individuals.”

In the past five years, the CDC found children between the ages of 5 and 9 make up a significant portion of Lyme disease cases. The average age of a Lyme disease patient, however, is 30.

Also, deer are not the culprits; Wagner said the white-footed mouse is a primary carrier of Lyme disease. In the fall of 2016, there was a bumper crop of acorns, a primary food source of the mice. Plus, urban sprawl has led to fewer animals that prey on mice.

PA Lyme Resources says deaths from Lyme disease have been documented since the 1980s. Causes of Lyme disease death includes heart-block, dementia-like vasculitis and stroke.

Suzanne Elliott is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at 412-871-2346 or selliott@tribweb.com, or via Twitter @41Suzanne.

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