Jill D. Henning

Jill D. Henning

Lyme disease has emerged as one of the most commonly recognized tick-borne illness in Northeastern and upper Midwestern regions of the United States. 

In the past century, Pennsylvania has become very favorable for the ecology of tick-borne diseases. The region’s woodlands, rivers, growing white-tailed deer population, plentiful population of the white-footed mouse, and the expansion of human populations into the black-legged tick’s habitat create ideal conditions for the transmission of Lyme disease to humans.

Lyme borreliosis is the most highly reported infectious disease in the United States. The most recent data show that 11,900 cases of Lyme disease were diagnosed in Pennsylvania in 2017. Research out of my laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown shows that one out of three ticks in our area carry the Lyme bacteria.

Ticks do not just carry the Lyme pathogen; they are capable of carrying up to four other bacteria (anaplasmosis/ehrlichiosis, spotted fever rickettsiosis, babesiosis and tularemia) and three viruses (Bourbon Virus, Posswan Virus and Heartland Virus). 

Under-reporting of all tick-borne diseases is common, so the number of people actually infected is much higher.

When a tick embeds in your skin, transmission of bacteria often requires a full feeding. 

The tick must be engorged and look like a gray pea. 

This is because the tick must regurgitate some of the blood meal back into you to transmit the bacteria. The viruses can be transmitted upon insertion of the head into the skin. Symptoms of Lyme disease and other bacterial illness transmitted by ticks are similar.

Interestingly, 30% of individuals who are bitten by a tick carrying Lyme will not develop the characteristic bullseye rash. However, most will develop a cold or flu-like illness (headache, fever, muscle pain and tiredness) within five to seven days of the bite. 

If you are infected with one of the viruses, most likely the symptoms will be similar to a summer cold. Some may develop complications that result in encephalitis, an infection in the brain. It is important to tell your physician or medical professional of your recent outdoor activity if you suspect you may have Lyme disease or one of the other pathogens carried by ticks.

How can you protect yourself from ticks carrying Lyme or other diseases? Ticks are attracted to carbon dioxide. 

They have sensors on the top two of their eight legs. 

Humans and other mammals release carbon dioxide from their skin as we exercise. 

The more active a person, the more carbon dioxide they release from their skin, the easier it is for a tick to detect you. 

There are several repellents that can be used to protect yourself. I recommend one with 0.5% permethrin.  

DEET is a known carcinogen; placing this on clothing is the best option but it should be avoided on skin.

There are a number of plant-based essential oils that have repellent properties. 

These oils should be applied every hour while out. Some of the plant-based oils are derived from these plants: Citronella grass, wild basil, sweet basil, geranium and clove to name a few.

If you do get bitten by a tick despite your repellents, be sure to use tweezers grasp the head, never the abdomen, and remove all mouth parts. This is the most-effective way to remove a tick.

So, what happens if your repellents do not work and you end up with Lyme disease? Many may think that Lyme disease is a life-long problem that results in debilitating physiologic issues. 

There are a few misconceptions about Lyme disease that I would like to remedy.

Lyme disease is no longer a life-long problem as once thought. The disease itself is called “the great pretender,” and if you are one of the 30% of individuals who do not get the bullseye rash, then it can be missed in the early stages or mistaken for a flu-like illness.The second and third stages of the disease can mimic heart issues, arthritis and neurologic problems.

If you are diagnosed with Lyme disease in the later stages, most will be placed on doxycycline or amoxicillin for a month. If you are lucky enough to detect the tick bite and seek out treatment early, then treatment consists of one 300mg dose of doxycycline. 

Of course, this will only work if you take it within 72 hours of the bite.

I do not let the risk of acquiring a tick-borne illness deter me from outdoor activities. 

Yes, ticks are in high numbers this year and we say that every year, but with the proper repellent and the knowledge that if bitten, treatment is available, you can enjoy the outdoors without too much worry.

Jill D. Henning, Ph.D., is an associate professor of biology at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.

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