Penn State entomologist warns of tick-borne illness as Pennsylvania hunting seasons begin
As the 2019-20 hunting seasons kick into full swing, Michael Skvarla, an insect identifier and extension educator with Penn State’s Department of Entomology, recently briefed foresters, educators and outdoors enthusiasts on the various tick-borne health threats found in Pennsylvania’s woodlots.
By far the most prevalent (and commonly found on humans) is the black-legged tick, also known as a deer tick, which is the chief carrier of Lyme-disease causing bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi.
According to Skvarla, approximately a third of all black-legged ticks carry Lyme, and though more adult ticks carry the bacteria than those in the nymph stage, the majority of human infections come from nymphs, likely because they are smaller and harder to detect before it’s too late after 24 hours of attachment and transmission.
As three-host feeders, ticks overwinter as fed larvae, preferring birds and small mammals like the white-footed mouse as primary hosts. They then molt into nymphs in the springtime and remain active during the summer, before molting again into adults during the early fall.
Ticks do not hibernate through the winter and will be active on warmer days (above freezing), taking refuge under the snow and leaf litter during especially cold spells.
They prospect for hosts by “questing,” meaning they climb up on a limb or branch with legs extended and grab hold of medium to large animals, like humans, as they pass by. Ironically, deer are immune to Lyme disease, but act as a common carrier of the tick that spreads the seriously dangerous bacteria.
Skvarla also noted that edge cover and dense understories – especially plots of Japanese barberry – have proven to harbor more ticks, perhaps due to a greater population of small mammals within the ground cover. These areas coincidentally are where many small-game hunters, and their dogs, prospect for rabbits, pheasants and grouse.
Skvarla said the increase in Lyme diagnoses in recent years likely is a result of warmer, wetter years in Pennsylvania leading to an expanded black-legged tick population, coupled with better awareness and testing for Lyme-like symptoms.
When asked, he quickly dispelled the conspiracy theory that the U.S. government “accidentally leaked Lyme as a bio-weapon,” because, in his words, “It would make absolutely no sense whatsoever to introduce a bacteria-carrying insect that requires a host to survive, reacts with such slow-moving symptoms and responds so well to antibiotic treatment” in this manner.
Regardless, the ticks do continue to spread in Pennsylvania’s ideal living conditions and take a toll on an ever-increasing number of patients each year.
Less common ticks, such as the groundhog tick, squirrel tick, dog tick, and lone star tick, do not carry Lyme disease, but can potentially lead to health complications if bitten. These issues range from anaplasmosis, Babesiosis, and the Powassan virus to Rocky Mountain spotted fever and a host of other long-lasting threats such as neurological disorders, anemia, respiratory distress, organ failure and death.
In most cases, flu-like symptoms, including headaches, nausea and fatigue will occur within one to two weeks of an infected tick bite, regardless of whether or not a rash develops. Skvarla urges any known tick bite victim to seek medical attention immediately if any of these early onset symptoms begin to occur.
To prevent tick bites in the field, wear light colored clothing, tuck pant legs into socks, and apply insect repellents such as deet, permethrin or picaridin to your clothes. After returning from the field, immediately throw your clothes into the washing machine and check yourself thoroughly for ticks before showering.
If you do have an embedded tick, grab it as close to the skin as possible, preferably by the head and pull straight up without squishing its body to avoid propelling pathogens into your bloodstream.
Skvarla noted that Penn State offers free identification of ticks, but not pathogen testing. However, the Northeast Wildlife DNA Lab at East Stroudsburg does offer pathogen testing, and bite victims can access this free resource by visiting www.ticklab.org.