Ticks are everywhere outdoors and in our backyards in Indiana County and throughout Pennsylvania and beyond. Due to the warmer winter the dormancy period for breeding is shorter and more time for mites to breed. They are the most dangerous pests in our region of the country.
The most common mite in our area – black-footed mite (Ixodes scapularis). It transmits Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, babesosis and Povassen virus. Half of all ticks in Indiana County carry bacteria that cause Lyme disease. For this reason, anyone bitten by a tick should follow these instructions:
1. The tick should be removed by grasping it with tweezers as close to the skin as possible. Pull up; do not twist or pull it. A special means of removing ticks works well.
2. Clean the area with alcohol or soap.
3. Think about taking the tick to the doctor so that the lab can detect the type of tick that bit you.
Centers for Disease Control recommends that residents of our region undergo antibiotic prophylaxis. This is one doxycycline tablet for adults and a weight-adjusted dose of doxycycline for children.
There are certain symptoms that are associated with Lyme disease. If you have any of these symptoms, see your doctor. These include migrating erythema or targeted skin rash, new swelling in one or more joints, arrhythmia or facial paralysis. You will receive blood tests to determine if you have Lyme disease. If the result is positive, you will be taking antibiotics for two to four weeks. It usually cures the infection. There are some patients who need more time to recover, and many have Lyme disease syndrome after treatment. They may need to consult a specialist for advice and treatment. Very few people have symptoms that last for more than a few months.
Recently, we are seeing more and more patients with anaplasmosis. This is caused by another bacterium that is transmitted by the black foot mite. Unfortunately, the symptoms of this disease are not specific and can be severe. These include fever, headache, vomiting, muscle aches and malaise. This can cause kidney failure, respiratory failure and severe blood disorders that lead to bleeding and coagulation disorders. If diagnosed early, patients are treated with antibiotics. You can be bitten by a tick and get both diseases. The Indiana Regional Medical Center is testing Lyme disease when anaplasmosis is suspected.
Other infections from the same tick that have been observed in Pennsylvania but not yet in Indiana County are babesiosis (causes abnormalities of the blood, liver and kidneys) and Pavasen’s viral infection (causes encephalitis).
Another tick that is starting to appear here is the solitary tick (Amblyomma americanum). Due to climate change it is migrating north to the Mid-Atlantic region. It causes ehrlichiosis, which has symptoms similar to anaplasmosis. This tick also causes a strange allergy known as alpha gal syndrome. The tick causes allergies to carbohydrates found in the muscles of cows, pigs, deer and lambs. A person is allergic to this meat, as well as meat products such as cheese and milk. Symptoms appear a few hours after eating or touching meat. These include urticaria, shortness of breath, diarrhea, swelling of the lips and tongue and anaphylaxis. A person with this allergy should consult an allergist and avoid exposure to these substances.
The best way to avoid all these diseases is not to get a tick bite. Avoid shrubby wooded areas. Wear long pants and pre-treat clothing with insect repellents. Take a shower and inspect yourself and your children for ticks and remove them immediately. Treat your pets with tick medications throughout the year and check them if they get inside.
Finally, enjoy spring and summer – but be vigilant.
Stephen H. Wilson, MD, is the Medical Director of Laboratories at the Indiana Regional Punxsutawney Medical Center and District Hospital.