(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — Spring is fast approaching and with that comes warmer weather. As soon as the weather breaks, ticks season will be in full swing in Pennsylvania.

A bite from a tick can cause diseases like Lyme Disease, but this year, health officials are warning of a rare, dangerous disease — Deer Tick Virus (DTV). According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), DTV has been found in ticks at high levels for the first time in multiple locations around the state.

“Lyme disease has been present in all 67 counties for some time, and unfortunately, the prevalence of the very serious Deer Tick Virus appears to be increasing in some tick populations,” said Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary Patrick McDonnell.

“Pennsylvanians should learn about the threats posed by tickborne diseases and take commonsense precautions so they can enjoy our abundant natural resources—and the many wonderful physical and mental health benefits of outdoor recreation—as safely as possible,” said Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn.

DEP’s Tick Surveillance and Testing Program has detected unusually high infection rates of the Deer Tick Virus in adult tick samples recently taken from three sites:

  • Fisherman’s Paradise public fishing area on Spring Creek in Centre County
  • Iroquois Trail near Tunkhannock in Wyoming County
  • Lawrence Township Recreational Park in Clearfield County

At each of those three locations, the infection rate exceeded 80% of ticks sampled, according to the DEP.  DTV has been detected in a total of 15 Pennsylvania counties, and the statewide infection rate outside of the three “hotspot” locations is currently 0.6% of ticks sampled.

The DTV-positive ticks were discovered during routine testing as part of DEP’s active tick surveillance program, a five-year pilot program that began in 2018.      

Blacklegged ticks, also called deer ticks, are active even in winter when temperatures are in the mid-30s and above.

According to the Pa. Tick Research Lab Facebook Page, for the week of March 4-11, tick activity is currently listed as “mild.” However, deer tick activity will fluctuate to high levels as soon as the weather rises above freezing.

Tick season in Pennsylvania typically begins in April and can last until as late as October. Several tick species can be found in Pennsylvania — including deer ticks, brown dog ticks, and American dog ticks — and can be found in wooded areas or places with heavy growth, shrubs, trees or high grass.

The Deer Tick Virus, which is a type of Powassan virus, is rare in the United States, but the DEP reports positive cases have increased in recent years. It is spread to people primarily by bites from infected ticks and does not spread person-to-person.

Powassan virus can be transmitted from tick to human in as little as 15 minutes after a bite occurs, while other tickborne diseases, such as Lyme disease, take much longer to cause infection.

There are no vaccines to prevent or medicines to treat Powassan viruses. Preventing tick bites is the best way to reduce risk of infection and disease. 

Initial symptoms of a DTV infection can include fever, headache, vomiting and weakness.  Some people who are infected with DTV experience no symptoms, so infection can go undetected. However, 91% of patients treated for DTV infections develop severe neuroinvasive disease. 

Those who exhibit severe disease from Deer Tick Virus can experience encephalitis or meningitis and require hospitalization, with symptoms including confusion, loss of coordination, difficulty speaking or seizures. About 12% of people with severe disease have died, and approximately half of survivors of severe disease have suffered long-term health impacts.

Lyme Disease is also spread through the bite of infected ticks. 

Ticks can attach to any part of the human body. They must be attached for 36 to 48 hours or more before the Lyme Disease bacterium can be transmitted. There is no evidence that Lyme disease is transmitted from person-to-person.

Tips from the Pa. DEP for staying safe while outdoors:

  • Apply tick repellents containing permethrin to clothing and EPA-registered insect repellents such as DEET to exposed skin before entering the outdoors. Reapply as needed according to product label instructions.
  • Wear light-colored outer clothing and tuck shirts into pants, and pants into socks.
  • Walk in the centers of trails, and avoid wooded and brushy areas with low-growing vegetation and tall grasses that may harbor ticks.
  • After returning home, remove all clothing, take a shower, and place clothing into the dryer on high heat to kill any lingering ticks. Examine gear such as backpacks for ticks.
  • Conduct a full-body tick check using a hand or full-length mirror, including hidden areas such as the scalp, ears, armpits, belly button, and between the legs.
  • Check over any pets exposed to likely tick habitats each time they return indoors.
  • If a tick is found attached to your skin, use tweezers to remove it carefully, including the head. Monitor for symptoms and contact your doctor with any questions. 

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Tips from the Pa. Tick Research Lab for keeping your pets safe:

  • Treat bedding with permethrin: Use gloves and let dry before touching.
  • Perform tick checks regularly after being outdoors: check in ears and under armpits.
  • Treat pets with anti-tick medication or use an anti-tick collar.
  • Speak to your veterinarian about Lyme disease vaccine for dogs.

Click here to submit a tick for testing in Pennsylvania.