Prove your humanity

This story was first published on June 7, 2019

The rise of Lyme disease cases in Pennsylvania has been alarming. There were 10,000 in 2018, and that’s more than in any other state. The illness can cause flu-like symptoms and a rash in its early stages, and if left untreated, more serious health issues like arthritis and nervous system disorders.

The best way to avoid Lyme disease is to avoid infected ticks which carry the bacteria that causes it.

So, The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple arranged to meet an outdoor enthusiast who is serious about prevention. Jill Henning is an associate professor of biology at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. She loves to be outside, whether she’s hiking with her young son, running, or just sitting on the grass.

Henning met up with Holsopple at the head of one of the trails on the rural campus for a hike, and to talk about preventing tick bites. Henning brought a backpack that belongs to her son. It contains all of the things you need for a hike: snack mix, a rattlesnake guide, a whistle. On the outside are the characters of the latest Avengers movie, and Henning said it was also treated with a product called permethrin.

LISTEN to their conversation

Kara Holsopple: What is permethrin?

Jill Henning: It’s based off of the chrysanthemum flower. It doesn’t necessarily repel ticks. It doesn’t keep them from getting on you. But once they do get on you, it creates something that we scientists like to call hot foot syndrome. So if you think about a human touching stove, you have that reflex to retract. Ticks will get on the clothing [treated] with permethrin, and then climb so far and release themselves. They’ll fall off of you.

KH: So we’re heading out. What would be the first thing you would do to prepare yourself?

JH: There are lots of products available to treat your clothing. I’d recommend permethrin-based products, although you can use essential oils like eucalyptus, lemongrass, thyme, rosemary and lavender.

There’s DEET, which I don’t recommend, only because it’s a known carcinogen.

“Yes, ticks are a problem, but I don’t think you should let that bother you to the point where you don’t go outside.”

What I do is treat my clothing outside, or spray them in a ventilated area, and then hang them to dry. That lasts for a few washes, so you don’t have to continually treat.

When my son was younger, I used a bandana. I would tie it around him, because I couldn’t treat his clothing. Anyone under three, it isn’t a good idea to use that kind of stuff.

I usually always wear long pants, even if it’s warm.

KH: You’ve got long socks on.

JH: I do, all the way up to my knees. Just in case they get on, the ticks will climb the sock, and it’ll take a little while to get to your skin.

KH: So we’re here at the trailhead. What happens here?

JH: If you’re using something essential oil-based, if you’re using something that you made yourself, there’s a good chance that you should apply it on a more regular basis. So for example, apply it right before you leave, and maybe an hour or so into it.

“It’s best to walk in the center of the trail. Ticks like to attach themselves to long grasses, or in the brushy areas”.

Actually, when I hike, I use a lavender-based deodorant, because ticks are likely to go to the armpits, the belly button, in between your legs, and behind your knees. It’s just an added layer of protection.

So while you’re hiking,

  • It’s important to know where you’re at, and it’s best to walk in the center of the trail. Ticks like to attach themselves to long grasses, or in the brushy areas.
  • They use the top two legs of their eight legs to sense for carbon dioxide, for their next victim, so to speak. They’ll use those to attach to you as you walk by.
  • Ticks are attracted to carbon dioxide, so the more that you hike, the more that you’re going to respire, and your heart rate will go up. The more CO2 you’re releasing, the better target you are.

KH: What if you’re not walking on a trail, or you have to cross over a meadow? What should you look out for?

JH: So there’s vegetation called Japanese barberry. It’s an invasive species, and that has been known to attract ticks.

The other thing that you need to worry about in a field like this would be the white-footed deer mouse, which is actually where ticks acquire the pathogen from. Their bedding is in places like this.

The best thing to do is just go through the field, make sure that you had your repellents on, and then check yourself for ticks on the other side.

KH: Which tick causes Lyme disease in people?

JH: The tick we’re referring to mostly is the black-legged tick, or its scientific name is Ixodes scapularis. It’s also known as the deer tick. It’s black at the top, and then below that is brown.

The ecology of this particular pathogen is that the deer ticks will lay their eggs on the deer, and they fall off. Then they’ll get into the white-footed deer mouse bedding areas. The larval stages and the nymphal stages will feed on the white-footed deer mouse, and that’s usually where they acquire the bacteria.

So then, that tick will move to a deer as an adult, and that’s where they’ll complete their life cycle. You can see a couple deer trails, if you look right there. You can see where they’ve walked through, because they tend to walk in single file line.

So I would avoid that [deer] path if I were to be hiking here.

KH: Tell me a little bit about your research. I know that you looked at the prevalence of Lyme disease and ticks in Pennsylvania.

JH: Some students from Pitt-Johnstown and I did a study in six counties in the southwestern region of the Game Commission lands here in Pennsylvania, and we found that one in three ticks carry the Lyme pathogen. We are collecting ticks again to redo that study, but what we’re seeing is that it’s holding.

“One in three ticks carry the Lyme pathogen.”

KH: It’s early June. When are ticks most likely to jump on you?

JH: Now. Between April and September, so the warmer months of the year are typically when you see individuals getting bitten by ticks. Although ticks can bite you at any time of the year.

Because people are out in more force in the warmer months, that’s when they’re more likely to be exposed.

But in the lifecycle of the tick, they can bite you at the nymphal stage, or in the adult stage. The very small nymphs are the ones that are typical typically difficult to see.

In my Avengers backpack, I carry a magnifying glass so that I can see if that’s a mole or if that’s a tick.

KH: What are some of the misconceptions that the public has about ticks and Lyme disease?

JH: I do a lot of community outreach with various different organizations, and one of the questions that I get often that surprises me is that they ask if spiders carry Lyme disease. I think that misconception is because ticks are arachnids, and when people hear the word arachnid, they tend to think “spider.” Spiders are not vectors. They do not transmit Lyme disease.

“Individuals will have a flu-like or cold illness, fever, chills, and a little bit of tiredness or muscle pain and soreness.”

Another misconception is that most people know that if they’re bitten by a tick, they get the characteristic bull’s eye rash, which is referred to as erythema migrans in medical terminology. But actually, only 70 percent of individuals who are bitten by a tick where that tick happens to transmit the Lyme pathogen will show that particular bull’s eye rash.

So it’s better to think about the symptoms that the body produces, other than that bull’s eye rash. For example, individuals will have a flu-like or cold illness, you’ll have fever, chills, and a little bit of tiredness or muscle pain and soreness. Some people will mistake that as a summer cold.

If you’ve been outside somewhere that you think is a high prevalence area for ticks, you should consider that Lyme disease could be something that’s happening.

KH: So we’re at the end of our hike, and we’re getting into a car or we’re going home. What should we do now?

JH: That’s a great question. A lot of people forget about that part.

  • You should shower, relatively soon after you’re done hiking.
  • If you can’t do that, say you’re camping, you should check yourself for ticks.
  • If you’re alone, carry mirror, because ticks like to go into the places that we can’t see very well by ourselves.
  • If you do find a tick that’s embedded, don’t panic. Never touch the abdomen. That is a sure fire way to get the tick to regurgitate.
  • There are tick removal tools that sort of have a bend associated with the tip, and you slide it under the tick where it’s embedded into you, and twist. That twisting will then pop it out.

If you’re unsure about how to pull the tick out, I would suggest spending the three dollars and buying the tick removal tool.

Yes, ticks are a problem, but I don’t think you should let that bother you to the point where you don’t go outside. There are lots of things that you can do to prevent getting Lyme disease, and even if you do get bitten by a tick, you can easily treat yourself by seeing your primary care physician.

So go outside. Just do it smart.