BeWell: Follow These Tips to Avoid Tick Bites in the Pittsburgh Region

Roughly 30% of blacklegged tick nymphs and 60% of adults in Allegheny County have tested positive for Lyme disease.


Hundreds of cases of Lyme disease — a bacterial infection spread to humans and animals by infected ticks — are reported to the Allegheny County Health Department each year.

Nicholas Baldauf, the county’s vector control specialist, says Lyme disease positivity rates in blacklegged tick nymphs located in southwestern Pennsylvania, including Allegheny County, are at 30%, which is slightly higher than the state average of 25%. Pennsylvania also ranks No. 1 in the country in reported Lyme disease cases each year, notes Emily Struckhoff, an education program specialist on Penn State Extension’s Vector-Borne Disease Team.

The Lyme Disease Association says 476,000 Americans are either diagnosed with or treated for Lyme each year. 

Anyone at any age can develop the disease, but children are at a particularly high risk and make up more than half of the new cases diagnosed each year in the U.S., according to Pedi Lyme Net, founded in 2015 by Dr. Lise E. Nigrovic of the division of emergency medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital. 

Desiree Neville, a University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine assistant professor of pediatric emergency medicine, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “If an engorged tick is found on a child, parents should pull out the tick with tweezers and quickly, within 24 hours, secure a one-dose antibiotic to prevent Lyme disease.”

Learn more about the effects of Lyme disease on children here.

Signs and symptoms
So, what are the signs and symptoms of Lyme?

Some people (9%) bitten by ticks who possibly were infected with Lyme show a red bullseye rash near the bite.

Other signs and symptoms that can occur within days or months of infection include chest pain or rib soreness, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, pulse skips, heart block, heart murmur, nausea or vomiting, GERD, bladder dysfunction, joint/muscle pain, stiffness of the joints, neck or back, muscle twitching, headache, numbness, facial paralysis, dizziness, confusion, poor short-term memory, disorientation, mood swings, violent outbursts, personality changes, panic/anxiety attacks, testicular/pelvic pain, menstrual irregularity, fatigue and swollen glands.

Ticks need to be fully attached to their host for 12 to 36 hours to transmit any diseases. 

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While there are at least 25 species of ticks in the state, the blacklegged or deer tick responsible for transmitting Lyme is the most common. 

Struckhoff stresses that while Lyme is the most common tick-borne disease, the arachnids also carry many other diseases including anaplasmosis, Borrelia miyamotoi, Powassan virus and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Baldauf says the Powassan virus is a scary infection to contract because it can take effect within 15 minutes of a bite. Infected individuals will exhibit flu-like symptoms and neurological symptoms such as seizures, paralysis or a coma. About 10% of cases are fatal. Baldauf says two ticks in Allegheny County tested positive for Powassan in 2021. None were found in 2022.

Preventive measures
Baldauf says tick nymphs are mainly responsible for transmitting Lyme and they are generally most active from mid-spring through the fall. Adult ticks are more active from fall to early spring.

“What’s really dangerous is their size,” he explains. “They are as small as poppy seeds, and you really can’t feel them crawling on you.”

If you know you will encounter ticks in your travels, the best way to avoid possible tick bites and exposure to Lyme and other tick-borne diseases is to pre-treat clothing and shoes with a permethrin-based spray. These sprays will protect you from ticks through several washes. Wearing long pants, sleeves and light-colored clothing is also recommended. Bug repellents containing picaridin or DEET can be sprayed on the skin to keep ticks away.

“When I’m doing surveillance, I wear knee-high rubber boots and treat them every two weeks with permethrin,” Baldauf adds.

Both Baldauf and Struckhoff say ticks like dark places and will attach to a host in hard-to-spot areas such as behind the ears, scalp and clothing waistbands. Ticks can also attach to your pets.

“After you’ve been outside, it’s a good idea to do a tick check,” notes Struckhoff.

If you do find a tick somewhere on your body or your pet, the best way to remove it is to grab it as close to the body as you can with fine-tipped tweezers or a tick removal tool and pull straight up. Do not douse them in alcohol or petroleum jelly or burn them.

“If you douse them or try to burn them, it will cause the tick to regurgitate whatever it has in its system, which could increase your risk of exposure,” Baldauf says.

What should you do if you are bitten?

Struckhoff says to be on the lookout for any flu-like symptoms days or weeks after exposure. If you suspect that you were bitten by a tick, let your doctor know within 24 hours. Most patients are treated with antibiotics such as doxycycline. There is no effective vaccine against Lyme for humans on the market, although both Moderna and Pfizer are researching possible options.

You can also save the tick and have it sent to the Pennsylvania Tick Research Lab at East Stroudsburg University for testing. 

She notes while the lab’s findings won’t serve as a diagnosis, it will give you some more information on that particular tick to seek potential medical treatment.

Uptick in ticks
Struckhoff says we have seen an uptick in Lyme cases over the last two decades. 

“One of the reasons for the increase may be attributed to land use changes and where people live,” she explains. “Now, there is more contact between humans and habitats where animals that ticks attach to, like deer, typically go. Another reason is climate change; ticks are now able to live where they may not have been able to survive the winter before.”

Struckhoff and Baldauf say while there are tick surveillance programs in the state, controlling the population is difficult. According to Struckhoff, there is research being conducted to hopefully find a solution to the population control issue.

There are ways to control tick populations on your own property. 

“Ticks generally need shade and moisture. They like tall grasses or brush and don’t generally do well in the heat,” Struckoff says. “If you have a table or playground outside, reduce the tick populations near those areas by keeping the grass mowed and moving them away from a wood line.”

Mice are also common carriers of Lyme disease. Tick tubes may be placed around your property for tick control. The tubes contain permethrin-treated cotton that mice will carry back to their nests that will kill the tick population in the nest.

“If you use a pesticide that is known to kill ticks, always use them according to the directions,” Struckhoff advises. “Use them sparingly because they aren’t just going to kill ticks; they can harm other insects and creatures on your property.”

For more information and resources on ticks and Lyme disease, visit the Allegheny County Health Department website.

Categories: BeWell