It's tick season in Pennsylvania — here's how to avoid bug-borne illnesses like Lyme disease

POCOPSON, Pa. (KYW Newsradio) — It’s tick season. Pennsylvania has the highest number of reported cases of Lyme disease, a tick-borne illness, in the country. Most Lyme cases are found right here in Southeastern Pennsylvania. A Lyme disease expert has some advice for what to do when you find a tick on yourself or someone else.

"The worst thing to do is freak out, because people's first impulse is to grab that thing and rip it out,” said Doug Fearn, president of LymeBasics.org, formerly the Lyme Disease Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

The organization is dedicated to educating the public about the illness and helping patients who are infected.

“When you irritate the tick like that, and particularly if you squeeze it, it just injects all of the pathogens inside … right into your blood," he said.

How to remove a tick

Fearns says the proper way to remove a tick that has embedded itself into your skin is to use fine-pointed tweezers, grab the tick as close to the head as possible, and pull it directly out, using consistent pressure. It is important to avoid squeezing the body of the tick.

Another way, Fearn says, is to use a special flat tool that has a groove in it to catch the critter as you sweep it across your skin.

"You keep moving it, and it just pulls the tick right out of your skin,” he said.

“Both of those ways — if you do it right — will get that tick off of you with a minimal chance it will get infected.”

Fearn says, never try to burn a tick out, or use dishwashing liquid or petroleum jelly. Those methods could irritate the tick and cause it to release pathogens.

He says there are additional preventive steps you can take, such as applying an insect repellent that contains deet or to wear clothing that has been treated with Permethrin, a synthesized version of a chemical found in chrysanthemums that kills ticks and most insects on contact.

What to do about Lyme disease?

Lyme disease is just one of more than 20 tick-borne illnesses. Typical symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and a skin rash. Untreated infections can spread to cause joint pain, and problems with the heart and the nervous system.

Many times, it is hard to diagnose and to treat Lyme disease. Most insurance companies do not cover treatments. You can find more information and resources available at LymeBasics.org.

"Unfortunately, there has been very little research on this disease,” Fearn said. “What we really need is an effort to develop a reliable test that not only will detect if you have Lyme disease but also one that will tell us when you will be cured, when you clear the infection. We don't have reliable versions of those tests at this time."

Lyme disease can be very serious, and even fatal. Fearn says researchers need more funding.

"This is something that has to be funded by the government or by foundations that have millions of dollars available to do that. And there are foundations that are putting millions of dollars into this, but it’s really going to take a major influx of money to get the right researchers, doing the right research, to really find the answers that we need.”

Protect your pets, too

Cats and dogs are just as at risk of contracting tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease as humans. A local veterinarian has some advice for pet owners that can help protect their companions.

“It’s warm, and it’s that kind of a wet, rainy spring season, and so I think this is when we see an astronomical amount of ticks compared to the winter months or the colder months,” said Dr. Alicia Royer, the shelter veterinarian at Main Line Animal Rescue.

“We do see a lot of ticks already, but I will say I feel like I’m getting more reports. Statistically, I feel like we are starting to see more and more ticks each year — or even the last few years — but, yeah, it’s definitely high right now.”

Preventing infection is key, Royer said. And the best way to prevent a pet from picking up a dangerous tick-borne pathogen like Lyme disease or anaplasma is to work with a veterinarian to find a flea and tick product that can be used all year round with your pet. There are products available for cats as well as dogs.

“The ticks will still bite, but they will almost always die before they can transmit a disease that can potentially harm our animals,” Royer said.

“What will happen is it’s going to kill the tick before it can transmit that disease, but it doesn’t mean you’re not gonna find them, so removing them — and removing them quickly — is also really kind of key in this.”

So, she says, it is important to check pets for ticks after walks or time spent outdoors.

“Just kind of giving them a feel, if they’re long hair, and scratch them a little bit. Look in their ears. Look on their face or neck, their belly.”

As with humans, the best way to pull out a tick is with tweezers. Never use essential oils, she said, because they can be toxic to your pet. And before discarding the tick, make sure it’s good and dead by dropping it in some rubbing alcohol.

Dogs can get Lyme disease, just like people. And it can be just as hard to diagnose.

“They can get a fever and become lethargic and get joint aches and lameness and pain,” Royer said. “It can take months until you even see the effects of the Lyme disease.”