2011-04-02 / Outdoors

Lyme disease risk is for real

It seems that everyone knows someone who has had Lyme disease -- or they have had it themselves. Pennsylvania has more cases than any other state, and Cameron and Elk counties have had the most cases in the state for the past 20 years.

Could this have something to do with the concentration of elk in the area?

Lyme is not a disease to be taken lightly. Initial symptoms usually include a “bull’s eye” red rash with a darker red middle. Usually there is fever, fatigue, stiff neck, headaches and muscle aches.

If the disease goes untreated with antibiotics, it can progress to more serious and chronic symptoms, such as facial palsy, arthritis, paralysis and heart rhythm disturbances. The blacklegged deer tick is a carrier of the disease, and they are more common in Pennsylvania now than they used to be. Steve Jacobs, Penn State extension entomologist, says that’s because the state is populated with big and small wildlife that support the complex life cycle of this tick -- as well as millions of people who spend a lot of time outdoors.


Elk use hooves, antlers, or even low branches to scratch an itch, depending on the location. The bare hide on this bull’s back is a result of using his hooves to scratch the itch of a tick infestation. His winter coat is molting and will soon be shed. Elk use hooves, antlers, or even low branches to scratch an itch, depending on the location. The bare hide on this bull’s back is a result of using his hooves to scratch the itch of a tick infestation. His winter coat is molting and will soon be shed. Highest risk for human infection is from ticks in the nymph stage in the spring, when they are about the size of a speck of pepper. That’s because a tiny nymph has time to feed and transmit infection even before it is detected. Researchers say the tick must be attached to the body and feeding for 24 to 36 hours before Lyme disease is transmitted.

People are emerging now eager to breathe the fresh air of the outdoors as they fish, hunt turkeys, hike, camp, clean up the yard or work outdoors -- right at the time when the risk of Lyme disease is the highest.

In the adult phase, the ticks -- slightly larger than a pinhead -- attach themselves to deer, elk and other mammals, where they live and feed, mating in the fall and early spring.

Although adult ticks aren’t active in temperatures below 27 degrees, they can find comfortable accommodations under the fur of elk and deer, thus sustaining a tick population through winter.

Ticks are especially active in the nymph stage May through July, waiting on leaf litter, low branches and the tips of tall grasses and brush for a host – elk, deer, human, dog, or small rodent -- to brush against them so they can hop aboard for a ride and a slow meal that can take days.

The presence of ticks wreaks havoc on elk and deer that use their hooves to scratch the itch, further irritating their hides. But the scratching in springtime helps elk shed their heavy, matted, tick-infested winter coats. Perhaps this displacement of ticks somehow contributes to the high incidence of human infection with Lyme in springtime.

Those engaged with outdoor activities where Lyme is prevalent should:

• wear light-colored clothing so that ticks can be seen more easily;

• tuck pantlegs into socks or boots and shirt into pants, and tape those seams to provide even greater protection;

• spray insect repellent containing DEET on clothes and on exposed skin (other than the face), and treat clothing with a stronger spray containing permethrin, which kills ticks on contact;

• wear a hat and a longsleeved shirt for protection.

If a tick is found attached to a person, it should be carefully removed by grasping the tick with tweezers as close to the skin as possible and pulling straight back with a slow, steady force.

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