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Tick season is underway in Pennsylvania — here’s how not to get bit

This undated file photo provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a blacklegged tick, also known as a deer tick, a carrier of Lyme disease. U.S. Lyme disease cases jumped nearly 70% in 2022, according to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in February. Health officials say it’s due to a change in reporting requirements, and not an explosion of new infections. CDC via AP

As spring and summer activities draw more people outdoors, ticks have more opportunities to create problems.

“Tick season” in Pennsylvania generally lasts from April to October, peaking during the spring and fall months. However, that time frame isn’t an exact science. Ticks are warm-weather creatures, and there’s a chance that they can come out of the woods whenever there’s a warmer-than-usual day during the winter, according to experts.

“Ticks are around all year, especially with how mild our winters have been,” said Zak Lipniskis, of D-Bug Pest Control. “There have been a lot of ticks still being active in the winter months.”

Pennsylvania is one of the nation’s leading hotbeds for ticks carrying pathogens such as Lyme disease, the most common tick-borne illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Pennsylvania reported the second-highest total of cases of Lyme disease in 2022 with 8,413, trailing only New York.

Lyme disease is no laughing matter. Some of the early symptoms include headache, fever, fatigue and muscle pain. Chronic cases can cause an irregular heartbeat, arthritis, drooping face and inflammation of the spinal cord.

Extinguishing ticks is part of Lipniskis’ job at D-Bug Pest Control. Even so, the agency has had its own brushes with Lyme disease in the past.

“One of our office staff had Lyme disease and she didn’t know. She actually ended up being paralyzed on one side of her face,” Lipniskis said. “We had another guy, and he had such bad knee pain that he couldn't walk. He found out that it was for Lyme disease. Neither of them even knew they got bit by a tick.”

Other tick-borne diseases to watch out for include babesia, ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and the deer tick virus.

Ticks are more commonly found in areas with plenty of shade, tree coverage and tall grass.

“Rural areas with woods, high grass, shrubbery … any kind of plant life like that,” Lipniskis said. “Dense areas, like a forest or a tree line around somebody's property or filled with tall grass … areas that deer are often going through.”

Not all ticks are made equal, and not all types of ticks are commonplace in the same parts of Pennsylvania. However, according to Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, the blacklegged tick has spread into all 67 counties in the state.

Others, such as the Asian longhorn tick and American dog tick, have spread into Allegheny and Beaver counties, which are adjacent to Butler County.

“Blacklegged ticks are the vectors of Lyme disease bacteria,” said Erika T. Machtinger, associate professor of entomology at Penn State University. “Depending on where you look in the state, 20-60% of blacklegged ticks are Lyme positive.”

One way to avoid ticks is to use a repellent containing DEET, which can be sprayed onto skin and clothing. For extra protection, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants to give ticks less exposed skin to attack, and tuck your shirt into your pants to prevent ticks from crawling up your shirt.

Of course, sometimes the ticks evade these measures and succeed in attaching to their hosts. If this happens, be sure to watch for a red bullseye-shaped spot on the bite area, as this could be a sign of trouble.

“If you do have the bull's-eye, it's very, very likely that you have contracted Lyme disease,” Lipniskis said. “Even if there isn't a red bull's-eye, that doesn't mean that you didn't contract the disease.”

In the event of a bite, the victim should remove the tick from their skin as quickly as possible.

“Carefully remove an embedded tick using a pair of fine forceps/tweezers. Grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible and pull straight up,” Machtinger said. “Avoid squeezing the squishy abdomen as this could force pathogens into the skin that might not otherwise go in.”

Humans aren’t the only ones who should be watching out for ticks during this season. Our four-legged canine companions are just as vulnerable, if not more so, to tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, anaplasmosis and ehrlichiosis.

“We specifically see a lot of Lyme-positive dogs,” said Amber Donnelly, assistant manager at Butler Veterinary Associates. “If they have an active infection, they usually present with lameness.”

Canine owners can actively prevent their pets from suffering tick-borne illnesses with year-round tick preventive products, by using a flea comb, or by checking their dogs’ fur after they play outdoors.

“Ticks sense vibration and heat, so they usually like to hang out in tall grass or leaves,” Donnelly said. “Once they feel that vibration from the dog coming through, then they'll climb on and attach. That's how the transmission of those diseases happens.”

Pennsylvania residents now have an extra tool at their disposal to get ahead of ticks. The state’s Department of Health has launched a new online dashboard which tracks cases of tick-borne illnesses in Pennsylvania, including Lyme, babesia and anaplasmosis.

According to data from the dashboard, Pennsylvania has counted 1,856 cases of Lyme disease by the end of April, a slight increase over the 1,828 cases reported by that same point last year. Butler County has reported 35 cases so far this year.

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