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Ticks survive winter, emerge hungry

Doctoral student Connie Johnson shows a vial of Gulf Coast ticks she picked up around North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C. The tick was first discovered in Pennsylvania in 2021. Associated Press

While barbecues, swimming, balmy weather and flip-flops are a part of summer in Butler County, so are deer ticks, which can spread a life-changing disease.

Jamar Thrasher, press secretary in the state Department of Environmental Protection’s central office, said 54% of deer ticks in Pennsylvania are infected with Lyme disease.

Butler County had the most cases of Lyme disease in the state in 2017, and Pennsylvania has found itself in the top 10 states for cases of Lyme disease every year since 2008.

For 11 of those years, Pennsylvania scored No. 1 for cases of Lyme disease.

The disease can cause fever, headache and fatigue, and, in long-term cases, it can affect the heart, nervous system and joints.

Thrasher said a common misconception is that a snowy, cold winter affects tick populations the following spring and summer.

He said unless temperatures dip to the single digits for more than a week without snow being present, weather has little effect on tick populations in the temperate months to follow.

“Deer ticks will be active and looking for hosts all winter when temperatures are above freezing, therefore, people can be bitten during the winter,” Thrasher said. “They survive by laying low in the leaf litter when they are not looking for a host in the winter.”

He said snow helps ticks survive, as it acts as an insulator for them.

Peak activity periods for adult deer ticks are October and November, but they will remain active through June of the following year, Thrasher said.

He said nymph deer ticks are mainly active in June and July, but are most dangerous when they emerge in April because they are so tiny, the humans and pets they choose as hosts may not notice them.

New tick

Thrasher said a new tick first discovered in Pennsylvania in 2021 is the Gulf Coast tick.

That tick can transmit to their hosts a pathogen related to Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which is transmitted in the western states by the American dog tick, he said.

Thrasher said the illness transmitted by the Gulf Coast tick is less severe than Rocky Mountain spotted fever, but leaves a necrotic lesion, known as an eschar, at the site of the bite.

No Gulf Coast ticks have been found in Butler County, Thrasher said, but single specimens have been found in random counties in Pennsylvania.

“I expect this tick to be limited to the Southeastern part of the state for now,” he said.

Avoiding ticks

Thrasher said although ticks are a major issue in Pennsylvania, a statewide tick control program is not feasible because it would be costly and unmanageable.

“The best thing people can do is to take precautions to protect themselves from tick bites,” he said.

He said ways to avoid a tick bite are using the center of trails when hiking; conducting tick checks while outdoors and when returning home; treating clothing with repellent such as permethrin; tucking pants into socks and shirts into pants to create a barrier between ticks and the skin’s surface; wearing light clothing outdoors so ticks are visible; placing clothes in a hot dryer after being outdoors; and taking a shower when coming indoors after time spent outside to wash away any ticks that have not embedded in the skin.

Those who find a tick embedded in their skin should remove it as soon as possible by grasping the tick with tweezers as closely as possible to the skin surface and pulling upward with even pressure.

“Once the tick is out, clean the site with soap and water,” Thrasher said. “Monitor yourself for symptoms pose removal, and consult a primary care physician.”

Long-term effects

One county resident who deals with the effects of Lyme disease daily is Chris Myers of Fairview Township.

Myers said he was bitten by a tick 20 years ago and developed severe joint pain and gout.

His doctor treated him for gout, so he was not immediately tested for Lyme disease.

When he was discovered to have the illness, he was put on antibiotics, which did not help, he said.

His doctor told him he could come to his office every day for three months, where he would receive intravenous antibiotics.

“He said ‘It will help you for a while, but it will come back,’” Myers said.

Due to crippling fatigue, Myers went to a clinical nutritionist in Mars two years ago.

His blood work came up positive for 14 of the 18 variations of Lyme disease.

“The doctor said he’d never seen a case like that,” Myers said. “He said the only way to test positive for that many variations of Lyme disease is if I contracted it from various parts of the country.”

Over the last 20 years, Myers has traveled the country extensively working on electrical substations.

He was given a cocktail of 12 supplements to take each day to bolster his immune system, which allows him to stay awake at work and allayed his fears of falling asleep while driving, but he still sleeps at least 10 hours each night.

“My main symptom is chronic fatigue,” he said, “but I can function during the day just great.”

Myers said multiple people who are close to him have Lyme disease.

“It’s an epidemic in Western Pennsylvania,” he said.

He said anyone who sees a bull's-eye rash on their skin, then begins feeling ill should go to their doctor or an emergency room immediately.

“If you don’t catch it right away, you’re going to battle it for the rest of your life,” Myers said. “I feel very fortunate that my only symptom is fatigue, because a lot of people have symptoms much worse than I have.”

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