It’s peak Lyme disease season, Pennsylvania. We can thank those pesky little black-legged ticks, also called deer ticks, which could be confused for poppy seeds.
It’s hard to predict how severe the Lyme disease season will be in the commonwealth this year, but residents have been contracting the disease in increasing numbers for almost two decades, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
For perspective, 2017 was one of the worst years, with the state recording close to 12,000 cases. Pennsylvania recorded close to 9,000 cases of the illness in 2019, which is closer to the norm, according to Leah Lind.
Lind is the Lyme and tick-borne disease coordinator within the state’s Bureau of Epidemiology. Ticks have been reported in every county and Lind said even more urban counties are vulnerable to the disease-transmitting bloodsuckers in the peak months of June and July.
“Generally, what we say in Pennsylvania every year is a bad year for ticks and Lyme disease,” she warned.
The good news is Lyme disease patients can recover quickly with antibiotics if treated early.
But epidemiologists like Lind worry residents might confuse some Lyme disease symptoms — fevers, body aches, chills, headaches — for signs of the coronavirus and miss that window of treatment.
In the past, when people have gone to doctors’ offices describing flu-like symptoms, it’s been easy for doctors to pursue testing for Lyme or other tick-borne diseases because the flu virus doesn’t really circulate in the summer.
“Now that we have incorporated COVID into the mix, it decreases a little bit in the warmer months, but still can be quite prevalent. The symptoms do overlap,” Lind said. “Where they start to differ, of course, is COVID you’re going to start seeing those respiratory symptoms — shortness of breath, coughing, things like that.”
With Lyme, the giveaway might be the infamous bullseye rash, which can grow over the course of a couple of days to the size of a plate.
If a person interprets those flu-like symptoms as a mild case of COVID-19 and they decide to quarantine for 10 days, they risk Lyme complications.
According to Lind, the best course of action is to be better safe than sorry and have any flu-like symptoms checked out by a doctor if they come after spending time outdoors.
Prevention is also key in the fight against Lyme disease. We know people took to the outdoors in record numbers during the pandemic, but ticks can latch on even in your own backyard.
Whether you’re hiking, gardening, or mowing the grass, be sure to use your insect repellant. An old-fashioned tick check after being outdoors can help catch any strays, as can a shower. Tossing your outdoor clothes in the dryer for 10 minutes should take care of any stragglers, too.