BUCKHANNON — West Virginia offers beautiful forests and wildlife that invite exploration. But while enjoying the outdoors, Mountain State residents need to stay alert for the increasing threat of Lyme disease.
The deer tick calls many places home, and West Virginia’s fields and forests are increasingly popular habitats for the small parasite. Daniel L. Frank, an Entomology Extension Specialist and assistant professor at West Virginia University, said one theory attributes the rise of Lyme disease in West Virginia to a large deer population combined with climate change, which has led to more food sources for mice. Ticks contract the disease from mice, and then deer transport the infected parasites around the state.
Frank said ticks can be found most commonly in forests and tall grass, and the most effective way to avoid contracting Lyme disease is to not get bitten at all.
“Personal protection is the number one thing people can do,” Frank said. “If you are going to go into these environments, people should wear a strong repellent, long clothing to avoid getting bitten and light colored clothing to see the ticks easier.”
Frank also said that even if all these precautions are taken, a person should always check themselves for ticks to avoid infection. Ticks can be found most commonly on the scalp, underarms and groin area. To contract Lyme disease, a tick must remain attached for 36-48 hours, so the earlier the tick is removed the better.
Frank said the proper way to remove a tick is to get a good pair of tweezers and get as close to the skin as possible. Then pull without squeezing to avoid breaking the body, making sure to remove the whole tick. Crush the tick in the tweezers after it is removed. Frank said using other tools such as matches, lighters or petroleum jelly actually encourages the tick to dig deeper into the skin and are not effective methods for removing the parasites.
Associate Professor of Biology at West Virginia University Dr. Rita Rio said awareness must be raised among the whole community to properly deal with Lyme disease.
“It is the responsibility of the medical community to become knowledgeable about this disease and diagnosis,” Rio said, “as well as the infected patient/guardians to inform medical professionals if they received a tick bite prior to suffering from the symptoms.”
Rio said the earliest symptoms of Lyme disease include fever, chills, headache and muscle and joint aches. These symptoms are for early onset Lyme disease, while Rio said a more chronic condition involves more medically significant issues.
The most distinctive symptom of Lyme disease is the bulls-eye rash. Rio said the rash begins at the site of the tick bite after three to 30 days. Unfortunately, the bulls-eye rash does not occur in every case of Lyme disease — only about 40 percent of those infected experience the symptom — so it is common for Lyme disease to be misdiagnosed.
Since the early symptoms are generic and can be attributed to a number of illnesses, Rio said the best way to avoid a misdiagnosis is to consider the environment the patient had recently been exposed to and determine if they may have come in contact with a tick. A conclusive diagnosis of Lyme disease is done through a blood test, but even this may not be immediately effective.
“Lyme disease is diagnosed through blood tests,” Rio said, “which consist of a two-part analyses that may be done with the same blood sample. These blood tests rely on an immune response following infection so it may take time following a patient’s infection for these tests to be effective.”
After being diagnosed with Lyme disease, the patient can be treated by antibiotics to clear early infections, according to Rio, and that is why stressing the need for early treatment is so important to her.