Be safe and smart when outdoors to prevent tick bites

By Mark A. Miller, Education Director

As a relatively new inhabitant of western Pennsylvania, I was quite surprised to hear of how widespread the tick and accompanying disease problems are here. I come from central Ohio, have lived and hiked in many areas of the US and abroad, and have never had a tick bite that I know of. Dengue fever and a broken leg in rural India, yes. Tick bite, no. I now know just how lucky I’ve been. My first day of work as the new Education Director at Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, I was given the “tick talk” by Sue Myers, Horticulture and Facilities Director. As she was describing the safety precautions that I should take, she looked down and picked a tiny tick out of her shirt. She said that she’s a tick magnet – if there are any around, they will find her.

Here’s what I have learned – primarily from the Penn State Dept. of Entomology, which is an excellent source: Of the 25 tick species identified in PA, four are common in the Pittsburgh area: American dog tick, blacklegged tick, lone star tick and groundhog tick.

  • American dog tick is a carrier of Rocky Mountain spotted fever but not a carrier of Lyme disease. What my PA friends and colleagues tell me is that Lyme disease is the one you need to look out for here and Rocky Mountain spotted fever is rare.
  • Sometimes referred to as deer tick, blacklegged ticks are definitely vectors of Lyme disease. This is the real villain of the story. They can feed on humans at any stage in their life cycle. It takes in excess of 24 hours of attachment to your body before the causal agent of Lyme disease can be transmitted; therefore, it’s important to scan your body after walks in brush or tick-infested areas to find these ticks early.
  • Lone star tick is similar to American dog tick in that it is a vector for Rocky Mountain spotted fever but is a very poor vector for Lyme disease. It’s not nearly as common as the first two ticks described here.
  • Groundhog tick is just that: almost exclusively a tick on groundhogs. It is not considered an important vector for Lyme disease in humans.

So how do I protect myself and continue my tick-free record?

  • Wear protective light-colored clothing while outdoors, including a long-sleeved shirt, long pants tucked into your socks, and a broad-brimmed hat (if you are a hat wearer, which I am decidedly not)
  • Avoid known tick-infested areas – areas with long grass or high brushy vegetation, wooded areas, deer trails, forest floor, etc.
  • Check your body for the presence of ticks after visiting an area where you might have come in contact
  • Use tick repellents, such as DEET or permethrins
  • Use forceps or tweezers to carefully remove ticks attached to the skin. Apply gentle, constant retraction of the tick where it attaches to the skin – not the body of the tick. The use of heat (ex: lit match) or petroleum jelly is NOT recommended to force the tick out. These methods will irritate the tick, and may cause it to regurgitate its stomach contents into the individual, thereby increasing the possibility of infection.
  • Seek immediate medical attention if signs or symptoms of early Lyme disease appear.

Knowing the risks and how to avoid them makes me much more comfortable exploring Pittsburgh and its environs. While I won’t let the threat of Lyme disease completely dissuade me from enjoying the bountiful natural beauty of this region, being forewarned and prepared makes it much less likely that I will encounter a problem. May you also avoid being ticked off.