Updated July 31, 2018
Since 2011, Pennsylvania has had led the nation in cases of Lyme disease, with nearly 9,000 confirmed cases in 2016 (the most recent year CDC data is available). The highest incidence of the disease is in the southeastern part of the state, which includes Lancaster County.
While Lyme is the most common tick-borne disease in Pennsylvania, other infections such as Anaplasmosis, Erhlichiosis, Babesiosis, and Powassan virus that are also transmitted by infected ticks, provide more reasons to take precautions when outdoors this spring and summer.
Preventing tick-borne illnesses
There is no vaccine to protect against any of these infections, but there are relatively easy steps you can take to avoid developing the diseases in the first place:
- Wear light-colored long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and socks when in wooded areas with high grass where ticks like to live. Tuck pants legs into socks or boots; and shirts into pants.
- Wear a hat.
- Wear insect repellent that contains 10-30% DEET on clothing and exposed skin (not face) when outdoors. Apply sparingly on exposed skin. Do not use DEET on babies under 2 months of age.
- Do a full body tick check after spending time outdoors. Check your children carefully, including around the ears, under the arms, inside the belly button, and scalp.
- Shower soon after being outdoors to wash off ticks that haven’t attached to your skin.
- Call your doctor if you develop symptoms.
What are the symptoms of these infections?
To get any of these infections, you must be bitten by an infected blacklegged, or deer tick.
Symptoms of Lyme disease typically appear 7 to 14 days after being infected and are similar to the flu – chills, fever, headache, fatigue, and muscle and joints aches. What distinguishes the infection is a red rash that looks like a bull’s eye.
Up to one-third of people infected, however, do not get this characteristic rash, and many don’t notice it if they do. In addition, the connection between flu-like symptoms and a tick bite may not be top-of-mind. Blacklegged ticks are the size of poppy seeds and can be hard to see.
Anaplasmosis causes fever, headache and muscle aches, as can Erhlichiosis, along with red eyes, a rash, and decreased white blood cells. Babesiosis can cause fevers and joint paint, as well as a decrease in red cells.
Powassan virus, which has captured recent headlines, can cause inflammation of the brain (encephalitis) and can be passed from infected tick to human in just 15 minutes. Lyme disease requires the tick to be in place for at least 24 hours. To put things in perspective, however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports just 75 cases of Powassan virus in the U.S. over the past 10 years, and only 1 case in Pennsylvania.
Symptoms of Powassan virus, which can appear one week to one month following a tick bite, can include fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, confusion, seizures, and memory loss. Long-term neurologic problems may occur. Many people develop no symptoms.
What are the treatments for these infections?
When Lyme disease is detected early, it can be very successfully treated with two to four weeks of antibiotics. If untreated, Lyme disease can result in serious complications affecting the joints, nervous system, and heart. Anaplasmosis, Ehrlichiosis and Babesiosis all can be treated with antibiotics as well.
There is no specific medication to cure or treat Powassan. Severe cases may require hospitalization.
How to remove a tick:
There is no need to panic if you find a tick attached to you or your child’s skin. Prompt and proper removal of the tick helps prevent possible transmission of these infections. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends you take these 4 steps:
- Grasp the tick as close to the skin's surface as possible with fine-tipped tweezers.
- Pull upward with even pressure. Don't twist the tick; this can cause the mouth-parts to break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, remove the mouth-parts with tweezers.
- After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water.
- Dispose of a live tick by submersing it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag/container, wrapping it tightly in tape, or flushing it down the toilet. Never crush a tick with your fingers.