Tick-borne diseases pose ‘public health crisis’ in PA, experts say

PITTSBURGH — Pennsylvania continues to be a top state for Lyme disease, the most common tick-borne infection, and experts are urging awareness and caution.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health estimates that the state could have as many as 100,000 cases of Lyme disease each year.

“Pennsylvania is ground zero for ticks and tick-borne illnesses,” said Nicole Chinnici, the Director of the Tick Research Lab of Pennsylvania at East Stroudsburg University. “It has a lot to do with our geographical landscape and our protected land and having a decent amount of forest coverage. So with that... we have a huge public health crisis in our state, and it needs to be addressed.”

The lab tests ticks for free, determining the type of tick and potential infection. Last year, about 30,000 came from Pennsylvania residents, she said. Data show about a third of all ticks test for some type of illness.

And, more than half of people who submit ticks report having been bitten while in their own backyards.

“Your backyard is your greatest risk, because you don’t think that your backyard is a risk. You think it’s just going hiking, so your guard’s down,” Chinnici said. “You can go out for one minute to grab the mail, grab the newspaper, and you could be exposed.”

She suggests wearing tick repellent and bright colors that make it easier to spot a tick. If you find a tick that’s attached, you want to “use a fine-point tweezer, grabbing at the base of the mouth,” she said. More tips can be found on the lab’s blog: https://www.ticklab.org/blog/

Some patients who contract a tick-borne disease never end up finding a tick on them, according to Dr. Shannon Smith, a chiropractor and Lyme literate doctor with the Smith Health and Wellness Clinic in Penn Hills. And, not everyone reports noticing the “bull’s eye rash” that’s commonly associated with contracting Lyme disease.

Some of his patients come to him after having been misdiagnosed for years, including Krista Kaper, of Sarver. Kaper suspects she first got a tick bite about eight years ago, when she began feeling extremely tired.

At first, she assumed the fatigue was the result of the typical stresses that come with working and raising small children. Eventually, she was treated for an iron deficiency and later Celiac’s disease. Treatments worked at first, but not for long.

“I needed to find a new solution,” she said. She ended up being referred to Dr. Smith, who ultimately diagnosed her with Lyme disease.

Kaper had previously tested negative for Lyme, which can be common, according to Smith. He said that the standard tests can sometimes yield false negatives. His practice performs an array of tests to determine a diagnosis. He encourages patients to be tested for many tick-borne illnesses, beyond just Lyme.

Other people are sometimes misdiagnosed because tick-borne diseases can mimic so many other illnesses, he said. Lyme has earned the nickname “the great imitator.”

Smith said chronic joint pain or facial drooping are classic symptoms. But other patients report things like brain fog, communication issues or fibromyalgia symptoms. One particular tick-borne infection can apparently cause digestive issues.

“It mimics any disease whatsoever,” he said. “Any chronic illness.”

Simply living in Pennsylvania should raise the red flag that chronic symptoms could be caused from a tick bite: “It should be in the differential,” he said.

While early detection is ideal for immediate treatment, he said patients who’ve been misdiagnosed for years can still receive medication and relief.

For several months, Kaper has been taking prescriptions and supplements, and she is starting to notice results.

“I’ve already seen some improvements, certainly cognitively with my memory,” she said. Emotionally, she is feeling better as well, noting that Lyme can cause people to experience depression.

She hopes her story will help to raise awareness for ticks and tick-borne diseases.

“You always have to be thinking about it,” she said.

Smith noted that outdoor pets can even bring ticks inside your home.

“Doing tick checks is a really smart idea,” he said. “I encourage patients to take one of those lint rollers, and just roll yourself, because [ticks] don’t embed really quickly on people.”

While Smith is seeing an increase in cases, he said there is “hope” with awareness, improved testing and treatment.

He noted that the pandemic seemed to cause people to be more aware of their health and body, and interested in improving their immune systems.

“I just want to advocate for people - if you really aren’t sure what’s going on - to listen to that voice in your head that there’s something deeper going on,” Kaper told us. “And to not give up searching for answers.”