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North Hills Monthly

Spread of Ticks Means Greater Chance of Contracting Lyme Disease

Jun 30, 2015 09:45PM ● By Denise Schreiber
“You look about as happy as a tick on a fat dog.”
— Unknown

No one is happy when they find a tick, whether on a pet or on themselves. A new study has found blacklegged ticks present in all 67 counties in Pennsylvania, which means the risk of contracting tick-borne illnesses, including Lyme disease, is greater than ever.

Blacklegged ticks are also referred to as deer ticks, although they can also be found on mice, raccoons, groundhogs, coyotes (yes, we have them in this region) foxes, bear and almost all wild creatures. While these ticks can only complete their life cycle on deer (which is one reason to keep deer out of the yard), this doesn’t stop the smaller critters from taking ticks for a ride and dropping them off in your location.

Twenty-five years ago, ticks were found primarily in the Philadelphia region, but they have since migrated west. The Lyme disease bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi, is spread through the bite of infected ticks. The blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis) spreads the disease in the northeastern, mid-Atlantic, and north-central United States.

Most humans are infected through the bites of immature ticks, called nymphs, which are about the size of a poppy seed and feed during the spring and summer months. Adult ticks also transmit Lyme disease, but they are much larger and more likely to be discovered. Adult ticks are most active during cooler weather, so there really isn’t any safe time except maybe during the dead of winter.

Preventing tick bites is the key to preventing Lyme disease. Insect repellent is a must, and I’m not talking about using a dryer sheet tucked into your waistband. Repellents containing DEET are most effective and should be reapplied as necessary. Keep your pants tucked into your boots when walking through the woods or high grass areas, and wear long sleeves. If the kids are out playing in the woods, check them thoroughly when they come in, because they aren’t as likely to notice if they have been bitten by a tick.

If a tick should bite you, remove it carefully with fine tweezers or a tick key, which is available at outdoor shops. You want to remove it as quickly as possible. Lift it up from your skin—don’t pull it away because you don’t want to leave parts of the tick still attached to you that can inject the bacterium into your system. DO NOT use petroleum jelly or nail polish to smother it, or worse, use a lighter to remove it.

Dispose of the tick by putting it a sealed plastic bag or a jar of rubbing alcohol or flush it down the toilet. Do not crush it with your fingers. Thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with soap and water and alcohol.

Some of the early signs of Lyme disease are flu-like symptoms including fatigue, chills, fever, headache, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes. You may also develop a bulls-eye type of rash. If you develop any of these symptoms, it is imperative that you seek medical attention as soon as possible in order to avoid more serious consequences, including heart problems, Bell’s palsy and a form of meningitis. Treatment is simple with a course of antibiotics. Home remedies are not helpful and may make things worse.

Researchers at the University of Connecticut have discovered another connection to the spread of ticks—the Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii) plant, or ‘jagger’ bushes, as we Yinzers like to call them. Widely planted by landscapers, you may recognize it as having deep, burgundy foliage with small red fruit in the fall and lots of thorns. These garbage-collecting plants trap every leaf and piece of litter in the air. The plant is popular because it is cheap and deer-resistant, but changing climate conditions have enabled these plants to escape cultivation and reseed in places where they are not wanted, including woodland forests where they are replacing native species. In several states, they are on the invasive species list.

According to Scott Williams of the Connecticut Department of Natural Resources and Environment, barberry creates the perfect humid environment for ticks. “When we measure the presence of ticks carrying the Lyme spirochete (Borrelia burgdorferi), we find 120 infected ticks where barberry is not contained; 40 ticks per acre where barberry is contained, and only 10 infected ticks where there is no barberry,” he cites. Because the leaves decompose at the base of the barberry, it creates the perfect environment for ticks to thrive and spread. By cutting down the plant, you can reduce tick infestations; make sure to use an herbicide on the fresh cut if you aren’t removing the entire root.