Tick-borne illnesses can be life-threatening but there are ways to protect yourself

Lyme disease numbers dropped last year in Ontario County, compared with a spike in 2017. Ontario County Public Health Director Mary Beer hopes this year sees even fewer cases.

Public health officials are pressing hard for prevention of tick-borne diseases that can make you very sick and even become life-threatening.

“There are adults and children bedridden or in wheelchairs in our community and across our state because of Lyme disease and co-infectors,” said John Messina in a recent release about Lyme disease. Messina, a Canandaigua resident and founder of Ontario County Lyme Support Group, himself has battled with the illness spread by ticks. “Please educate yourself, so you can advocate for yourself about Lyme disease,” he said.

“New York State continues to be a hotbed for Lyme and tick-borne diseases, with more than 8,700 cases as of 2017 — while the Finger Lakes region experienced 365 of those cases in that year,” according to state Sen. Pam Helming, R-Canandaigua.

Helming backs increased funding for awareness and research against Lyme and related illnesses. Recipients of state funds include Cornell University, SUNY Adirondack, and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, all of which area working to combat diseases carried by ticks.

Helming, former Senate chair of the Legislative Commission on Rural Resources, is a member of the Senate’s Task Force on Lyme and Tick-Borne Diseases. A forum she hosted in Canandaigua in September 2017 drew a panel of experts who addressed more than 150 people. Most indicated by a show of hands they had been directly affected by tick-borne illnesses.

Olivia Keller, a recent high school graduate and member of the Ontario County Lyme Support Group, warned in the recent release that “tick-borne illness is more than just joint pain.” It’s important for people to know it can manifest itself in many different ways, she said. Symptoms can range from brain fog, migraines, and mental illness to night sweats and heart palpitations, chest pain, and high blood pressure, as well as wreaking havoc on your digestive system.

“Lyme Disease numbers dropped in Ontario County in 2018 from the high numbers seen in 2017. Western New York counties reported a similar experience in 2018," stated county Public Health Director Mary Beer. “We are hopeful that this is the result of the plethora of public health messaging that occurred in 2018.”

“Our message continues to be one of prevention and most importantly to check yourself, your children, and pets after every outdoor encounter where ticks might be present,” Beer added. “The transfer of Lyme Disease does not occur immediately upon the latching on of a tick. You have time to remove the tick properly. Be diligent in monitoring your health status and contact your health care provider or veterinarian in the event that you or your pets experience any symptoms (bullseye rash, headache, fever, chills, tiredness, and body aches are common early symptoms). If untreated, symptoms can progress to additional rashes, joint swelling and pain, nerve involvement, and heartbeat abnormalities. Your local health department is more than happy to field any questions that you may have. Feel free to reach out.”

Health officials warn that ticks live in shady, moist areas at ground level. They will cling to tall grass, brush, and shrubs, usually no more than 18 to 24 inches off the ground. They also live in lawns and gardens, especially at the edges of woods and around old stone walls. Once a tick gets on the skin, it generally climbs upward until it reaches a protected area. In tick-infested areas, your best protection is to avoid contact with soil, leaf litter, and vegetation. However, if you garden, hike, camp, hunt, work or otherwise spend time in the outdoors, you can still protect yourself.

“While we want people to enjoy the outdoors this summer, we want them to do so wisely since summer is an especially active period for ticks carrying Lyme disease,” stated Monroe County Public Health Director Dr. Michael Mendoza. “Ticks can crawl on to people or animals when brushed against in wooded areas or tall grass; they become easier to see as they become engorged with blood while attached to the skin. Ticks generally have to be attached to the skin for 36 to 48 hours to transmit Lyme, so prompt removal is important.”

Stay safe

The New York State Department of Health offers the following tips to keep you and your family safe as you venture outdoors:

• Wear light-colored clothing with a tight weave to spot ticks easily.

• Wear enclosed shoes, long pants, and a long-sleeved shirt. Tuck pant legs into socks or boots and shirt into pants.

• Check clothes and any exposed skin frequently for ticks while outdoors.

• Use insect repellent.

• Stay on cleared, well-traveled trails. Walk in the center of trails. Avoid dense woods and bushy areas.

• Avoid sitting directly on the ground or on stone walls.

• Keep long hair tied back, especially when gardening.

• Bathe or shower as soon as possible after going indoors to wash off and more easily find ticks that may be on you.

• Do a final, full-body tick check at the end of the day, and remove ticks promptly. Also check children and pets.