An Unwelcome Sign of Spring: Ticks and Lyme Disease


As spring turns Pennsylvania’s fields and forests lush and green—and outdoors enthusiasts go hiking, mountain biking, trout fishing, gobbler hunting, camping, canoeing, kayaking, and more—they will be greeted by sun and fun and at least one dangerous pest: blacklegged ticks.

Commonly called "deer" ticks, these carriers of the bacteria that cause Lyme disease are a lot more common around the state than they used to be.

Lyme disease is a disorder that can cause a variety of symptoms, including a bull’s-eye-like rash, fever, stiff neck, muscle aches, and headaches. Left untreated, victims can suffer facial palsy, arthritis, and even paralysis. It normally is treated with antibiotics, but if not caught early, recovery can be slow and difficult.

Ticks in the nymphal (immature) stages are active in May, June, and July. Nymphs will attach to mice, chipmunks, birds, and other small animals. Adults typically attach to white-tailed deer or other large mammals. While awaiting a suitable host, the ticks usually are found on leaf litter or low branches in brushy, wooded areas.

"The larval and nymphal stages of the tick are no bigger than a pinhead," warns Steven Jacobs, senior extension associate in entomology. "Adult ticks are only slightly larger. Ticks most often transmit Lyme disease to humans during the nymphal stages, probably because nymphs are so small they go unnoticed on a person’s body."

As a result, the nymphs typically have time to feed and transmit the infection — ticks need to feed for 24 to 36 hours to transmit Lyme disease.

So Jacobs recommends avoiding tick-infested areas such as woods with a high deer population, especially in May, June, and July when the nymphs are active. And he urges those who do go afield to take the following precautions when they are going to be in brushy areas:

  • Wear light-colored clothing so ticks can be spotted more easily.

  • Tuck pant legs into socks or boots and shirt into pants.

  • Spray insect repellent containing DEET on clothes and on exposed skin other than the face, or treat clothes (especially pants, socks, and shoes) with permethrin, which kills ticks on contact.

"Also, know the signs of Lyme disease and see your doctor if symptoms develop," Jacobs says. "If a tick is found attached to a person, it should be removed by carefully grasping it with tweezers as close to the skin as possible and pulling straight back with a slow, steady force. Avoid crushing the tick’s body."

Jeff Mulhollem