As more and more Pennsylvanians escape from their domiciles to explore the great outdoors again, the Department of Health is advising nature lovers in the commonwealth to take precautions against ticks.
On Tuesday, Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine offered up some advice to outdoorsmen and women on the proper steps to prevent problems with ticks and Lyme disease, which can present symptoms similar to COVID-19.
"Over the past several months, we have seen an increase in the number of emergency department visits related to tick bites," Levine said. "Some symptoms of Lyme disease, such as fever, chills and headache, are similar to symptoms of COVID-19. It is essential that all residents know the proper ways to protect themselves against ticks and are aware of the dangerous diseases they can carry. We want all Pennsylvanians to get outside and be healthy but do so in the safest way possible."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease in the United States, and is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, and rarely, Borrelia mayonii. Common symptoms tend to include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, swollen lymph nodes, and a distinct skin rash called erythema migrans. If left untreated, an infection can spread to joints, the heart and the nervous symptom.
While anyone who ventures outside is at risk of getting a tick – especially in wooded and bushy areas, areas with high grass and leaf litter, and even back yards – there are some precautions that can be taken to decrease the chances for bites.
The Department of Health advises that people should walk in the center of trails and avoid areas with high grass and leaf litter; use a repellant that contains at least 20% DEET; wear light-colored clothing; conduct full-body checks on yourself and your pets after spending time outside; and take a bath or shower within two hours after coming indoors.
If you have been bitten by a tick, it is important to monitor the area for symptoms —particularly a red, swollen bulls-eye-shaped rash — and contact a heath care provider immediately. Symptoms may present in as few as two or as many as 30 days after exposure. Later-stage symptoms, which may present upwards of months after exposure, can include arthritis, heart and neurological issues. While some patients with Lyme disease experience few to no symptoms, others may become severely ill and may even die.
According to the Department of Health, more than 8,500 cases of Lyme disease were reported across the commonwealth in 2019. The actual total may be greater, as the department is still working to compile Lyme disease data, which should be made available within the month.
Over at East Stroudsburg University, the Dr. Jane Huffman Wildlife Genetics Institute offers free tick diagnostic testing. According to the institute’s website, lab technicians use microscopy to identify the tick species, life stage, sex, engorgement measurement, and 17 different pathogens that can present in the Blacklegged or Deer Tick, the Lonestar Tick and the American Dog Tick. Testing occurs in a three-step process, and can be completed within three days.
Those interested in having a tick tested can find information on the Tick Research Lab of Pennsylvania website. Ticks can be mailed in or dropped off at the Dr. Jane Huffman Wildlife Genetics Institute. According to the lab’s analysis, out of the 19,564 ticks they have tested in the commonwealth, 7,183 were infected, and 12,381 were uninfected. About 32% of Deer Ticks tested positive for Lyme disease.