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June 30, 2023

It's tick season — here's how to stay protected and what to do if bit

Pennsylvania leads the nation in Lyme disease cases. Reported encounters with the insect are rising

This year's tick season may be one of the worst in recent memory as temperatures and humidity continue to rise, experts warn. As people head outside to enjoy the warm weather this summer, it's important to be wary of tick bites and the diseases they can spread. 

"This is the second worst year in recent history," Goudarz Moulaei, a professor at Yale University's School of Public Health, told Time earlier this month. Moulaei leads a lab where Connecticut residents send in ticks for testing. "In 2023, we've seen 1,800 ticks so far. In 2017... we received 2,100. We are seeing changes in the frequency and dynamics of tick and tick-borne disease activity throughout the northeastern U.S., down to New Jersey and Pennsylvania as well." 

As ticks have become more prevalent, so have the risks associated with tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease. Pennsylvania leads the nation in Lyme disease, which is primarily transmitted through bites from blacklegged ticksotherwise known as the deer tick, the most common tick found in Pennsylvania and the eastern half of the United States. Lyme disease can cause flu-like symptoms and a rash in its early stages and lead to arthritic, cardiac and neurological symptoms if left untreated.

If bit by a tick, the best remedy is remove it as soon as possible using tweezers, said Dr. Eric Sachinwalla, an infectious disease physician at Einstein Medical Center. The tick should be removed at the head, not the body, using firm pressure as close to the skin as possible so the entire tick is removed. Pulling from the tick's body risks leaving portions of its head and mouth in the skin, which can cause infection. Once the tick has been removed, the bite mark should be cleaned with an antiseptic. 

"Sometimes, it's helpful if you can identify the tick when trying to determine whether someone is at risk for certain types of infections," Sachinwalla said. "Knowing how long a tick has been on you is also important, as it only takes about 24 hours for a tick to transmit diseases." 

A doctor should be called if a tick has been attached to the skin for more than 24 hours, or if someone bit experiences fever, body aches and a rash at the site. If a tick was just crawling on the skin and did not bite down, there is no reason to contact a doctor. Doctors may prescribe antibiotic treatment to ease symptoms or prophylaxis for Lyme disease, Sachinwalla said. 

A tick removed from the skin can be discarded or sent to the Pennsylvania Tick Research Lab for testing and analysis. To send a tick in for testing, place the tick in a plastic bag, order a testing kit online, mail the tick back to the lab and view test results online within three days. 

Since 2019, the PA Tick Research Lab has analyzed more than 100,000 ticks. Since then, 29% of the 65,000 ticks tested from Pennsylvania were infected with Lyme disease or other bacteria, WHYY reported. 

People who are planning to take hiking or camping trips this summer should be cautious of ticks and take necessary protective precautions. 

"The most important thing you can do is be prepared when you're going out into areas where you might come into contact with ticks," Sachinwalla said. "If you're going into wooded areas or forested areas, there are a few things you can do to make sure the ticks stay off of you. You can wear short sleeves and short pants tucked into your socks to keep the ticks from getting access to your skin. You can use insect repellents (with DEET) on your skin as a second layer of protection against bites, just make sure that they are active against ticks." 

The CDC recommends treating clothing and gear with products containing 0.5% permethrin, an insecticide that targets ticks and other biting insects. Permethrin can be used to treat boots, clothing and camping gear, remaining effective through several washes. 

After returning home from being outdoors, it's important to do a thorough tick check. A proper tick check is often done with two people, Sachinwalla said, as ticks gravitate toward dark, warm parts of the body like the back of the knees, back of the neck, the crease of the elbow, armpits, the belly button, between the legs, between the buttocks and head hair. 

"I think being judicious about preventative measures and checking for ticks after you've been outdoors is a good thing to start doing during this time of year," Sachinwalla said. "But it shouldn't preclude you from doing things outdoors. You should enjoy your time outside, just be cautious and use insect repellent." 

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