Expert: Ticks spring forth, biologist says 'take precautions' when heading outside

Mar. 13—STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — While many people associate tick activity with warm summer months, a leading expert warns that ticks don't wait for a season.

"In Pennsylvania, all year-round is a big tick season," said Michael Skvarla, assistant research professor of arthropod identification at Penn State.

"In spring, people want to do some walks or check out the woods because they've been cooped up all winter, but they should take precautions."

Adult blacklegged ticks are present in the fall, through winter and into early spring. They are active and seeking hosts any day it's above freezing.

"If it's 50 degrees today, the ticks are out there biting people," Skvarla said earlier this week.

Blacklegged ticks — formerly called deer ticks — are the most common tick in Pennsylvania and also the main carrier of Lyme disease, a potentially serious bacterial infection. Samples show more than half of the state's blacklegged ticks carry the bacterium that causes Lyme disease.

The best way to avoid getting Lyme disease is to avoid getting tick bites, but Skvarla said it is hard to avoid ticks when enjoying nature.

Ticks are found in tall grass and weeds, along trails, in lawns adjacent to woods and in the woods — especially around the perimeter.

"They are found anywhere you've got small mammals," he said, adding that mice and deer are the primary hosts.

Unless they are attached to an animal or human, ticks are found near the ground — from the knees down. They don't fly or hop, but merely crawl up a tall weed or blade of grass or maybe out to the end of a low branch and wait.

Skvarla described it as "spreading out their (eight) legs and waiting for an animal to come by and brush them."

The tick latches onto the new host and then finds a tasty spot to burrow into the skin for a blood meal.

'Wear long pants'

Bite protection begins before leaving home.

"Wear long pants," Skvarla said.

"It looks kind of dorky, but pull your socks up over your pants and tuck your shirt in."

The idea is to make the tick crawl up over your clothes to get to any skin, allowing time to see the pest and remove it.

Tick repellents are recommended. They include DEET and picaridin, for direct application on skin and clothing, and permethin that lasts for several washings after it's applied to clothing.

There are clothing manufacturers that permeate outdoor wear with permethim. Clothing treated with permethin not only repels ticks, it kills them, along with mosquitoes and other insects that get on the material.

Skvarla said the old story that opossums seek out ticks as a source of food is simply not true.

"Some people did a study," he said. "They don't eat any more ticks than any other small mammal."

Pennsylvania is one of the top five states for cases of tick-borne Lyme disease and more than half of the state's blacklegged ticks are infected with the bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi. Humans, dogs and horses seem to be the most susceptible.

Because of the risk of Lyme disease, Skvarla recommends all pet owners have their animals protected against fleas and ticks year-round. Not only will it prevent ticks from infecting the pets, it protects family members because ticks brought in on protected animals will die from the treatment, Skvarla said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says typical symptoms of Lyme disease include fever, headache, fatigue, and a characteristic skin rash that looks like a bullseye. If left untreated, the infection can spread to joints, the heart and the nervous system.

Laboratory testing is helpful, the CDC says, but diagnosis is primarily based on symptoms, the presence of the rash and exposure to ticks. Most cases can be treated successfully with antibiotics.

In areas where Lyme disease is more prevalent, many doctors recommend getting a single preventive injection of the antibiotic doxycycline following a tick bite to reduce the chances of developing an infection.

Blacklegged ticks are not the only tick species in Pennsylvania and Lyme disease is not the only tick-borne illness. American dog ticks and lone star ticks can carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever and there are several other bacterial infections in the mix. All are much less common than Lyme and, like Lyme, they are highly treatable if detected early.

Last year, some isolated cases of Powassan virus disease in humans with tick bites raised concerns.

The virus often infects the brain with serious, even fatal, complications.

Surveillance testing showed abnormally high concentrations of infected ticks at two locations, including one in Clearfield County. More than 90% of ticks collected in Lawrence Township Recreation Park near Clearfield Borough tested positive for the virus. Skvarla said normally, only about 1% of mosquitoes test positive so some authorities were concerned the virus-infected ticks would continue to spread.

"We haven't seen that happen outside of those (original) areas," he said.