Vigilance prescribed to help prevent Lyme disease from tick bites

Alan Froman
ThisWeek group

Susan Robinson knew something was wrong, but she and the doctors she consulted couldn't figure it out.

Since the summer of 2001, she had been suffering a myriad of symptoms, including debilitating nerve pain and extreme fatigue that made it increasingly challenging to lead a normal life and complete the tasks of her job as a reporter with ThisWeek Community News.

The clock was ticking.

Months became years, and by November 2004, Robinson was forced to go on disability and quit her job. 

"I ended up making a list of about 30 symptoms I had experienced over time," she said. "I went to a lot of specialists, but they were only focusing on the symptoms that related to their specialty. No one was able to put all of the pieces of the puzzle together."

Doctors and others suggested all sorts of things – that she had fibromyalgia, that it was all in her head, that she should go see a psychiatrist.

"It was frustrating," Robinson said. "My body was changing forever," and she didn't know why.

Finally, in 2005 the answer was discovered – Robinson had contracted Lyme disease from a blacklegged tick.

This is a tick-identification card from the Ohio Department of Health.

"I had a friend who told my husband, Jeff, and me that my symptoms sounded a lot like her daughter's, who had been diagnosed with Lyme disease," Robinson said. "I went to the same specialist her daughter had gone to in Pennsylvania. I had seven blood tests, and five of them came back indicating Lyme disease."

Robinson had contracted Lyme disease after being bitten by the blacklegged tick. She believes the bite occurred in July 2001 while she was hiking in the Hocking Hills.

Shortly after that hike, she "noticed something on my ankle," Robinson said. "I didn't think anything of it. It was so tiny, I just flicked it off."

The tick was only the size of a seed, she said.

Within days, she was experiencing flu-like symptoms that evolved into more serious conditions. 

Twenty years later, the 60-year-old Delaware resident remains on disability, still unable to work full-time because of lingering nerve pain, fatigue and a "brain fog" that can make it difficult at times to concentrate and write even simple notes to friends.

"It's kind of hard to believe that all of this came from being bitten by a tiny creature you can hardly see," Robinson said.

She has gone through a variety of treatments over the past 20 years, including a period in 2005 when she required IV transfusions of antibiotics two or three times every day, she said.

Lyme disease impacts her on a daily basis, Robinson said.

That impact is not just physical, she said.

"It affects your self-esteem," Robinson said. "I loved working as a newspaper reporter. I miss it every day."

According to information on the Ohio Department of Health's website, the number of reported Lyme disease cases in Ohio have become more frequent.

In 2019, 468 human cases were confirmed, with the median age of the victim being 23 years and ages ranging from 1 to 86 years old. Lyme disease cases also were reported in 66 Ohio counties.

According to the ODH, the number of reported human Lyme disease cases in Ohio totaled 44 in 2010; 53 in 2011; 67 in 2012; and 93 in 2013.

During the 10-year period from 2010 through 2019, a total of 1,721 cases were reported, a yearly average of 172. The average median age of victims over the decade span was 35.5 years and the average number of counties with Lyme disease reports was 39 per year.

Ohio has about a dozen species of ticks, but only three are most often encountered by people and pets and those species are of the greatest public health concern because of the diseases they could carry, said Dr. Richard Gary, state public-health entomologist.

One of the most common myths associated with Ohio ticks is that any species can transmit Lyme disease, Gary said.

"In Ohio, only the blacklegged tick is known to carry and transmit Lyme disease, and only a small percentage of ticks are likely to be infected at any given time," Gary said. 

The various stages of this tick are active year-round, and the nymphs and adults might carry the bacteria that cause Lyme disease and the bacteria that cause anaplasmosis.

The other concerning tick species in Ohio are the American dog tick and lone star tick.

The American dog tick is the most commonly encountered tick in Ohio and is common on trails, roadsides and along the edge of woods. The species is active from early spring through summer and can carry the bacteria that causes Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

The lone star tick is found in similar habitats as the dog tick. It might carry the bacteria that causes ehrlichiosis. This species has been implicated in transmitting viruses that cause Heartland and Bourbon virus diseases in other states, Gary said.

Another common misconception is that ticks can jump and might fall from trees onto people, he said.

"This is because ticks are often found on arms, neck and head areas," Gary said. "In reality, ticks stay close to the ground and will climb to the edge of grasses and weeds along trails and latch onto passing hosts."

This document from the Ohio Department of Health explains how to avoid risks from tick bites.

Once a tick latches onto a human or pet, it will move undetected to a spot where it can attach itself, he said.

Popular methods to remove ticks, such as using hot matches to burn the tick off or smothering it with Vaseline, are ineffective at best and, at worst, can lead to infection, Gary said. 

"The best method for removing a tick is by pulling it off perpendicular to the skin without twisting," he said.

Tweezers are the best instrument and should be used to grasp the tick as close as possible to the mouthparts where it is attached, Gary said.

"The most important thing is to pull the tick off and don't allow it to remain attached," he said.

Robinson said the best advice she can give to people is to "be vigilant."

Ticks can be anywhere and not just in a remote grassy or wooded area, she said.

"My son played baseball, and you could see ticks climbing the walls of the dugout," Robinson said. "They can be found in a car wash."

It's important to check for ticks after spending time outdoors and to immediately report any symptoms, she said.

According to the ODH website, early symptoms of Lyme disease usually begin three to 30 days after a tick bite.

Those symptoms can include a "bull's-eye rash," headache, fever, chills, muscle pain, joint pain and fatigue.

Cases of Lyme disease are reported throughout the year in Ohio, but the number of cases is lowest in winter, increases in the spring, peaks during the summer and declines through late summer and fall, the ODH website said.

Although she continues to suffer from the effects of Lyme disease, Robinson said, she has not given up.

"My faith helps me keep hope that I will get better someday," she said. "My family has been so supportive through all of this."

Attending the Chronic Pain Rehabilitation Program at the Cleveland Clinic also has helped change her outlook, Robinson said.

The program assists patients through medical, physical and psychological rehabilitation.

"The Serenity Prayer is a big part of the program," she said. "It's helped me accept the things I can't change but gives me the strength to work on improving what I can change."

For more information about ticks and prevention, go to odh.ohio.gov/tick. For more information about Lyme disease, go to odh.ohio.gov/lyme.

afroman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekAfroman