Ontario County residents are urged to take precautions and practice preventative medicine when it comes to Lyme disease
CANANDAIGUA — At first, Julie Woloson thought the constant headaches she was experiencing were migraines.
Over the course of the next three weeks, the South Bristol resident was sluggish to the point where she felt like she was drugged. A swollen lymph node was discovered. As the days progressed and her health suffered, her face became paralyzed.
Woloson endured all sorts of tests — which ruled out cancer and stroke but shed little light on what was wrong with her. Finally, a neurologist hit on Lyme disease and set Woloson, who more than a year later is still experiencing health issues, on a slow path to normality.
“Bingo — that’s what it was,” Woloson said. “I was blindsided by it.”
And that is partly because she said she experienced none of the symptoms associated with the disease, which is spread by the bite of an infected deer tick.
As the weather warms, public health officials are urging people to take precautions to prevent diseases transmitted by ticks before heading into grassy or wooded areas.
Rocky Mountain spotted fever and several other diseases can be transmitted by ticks. Lyme disease, however, is the headliner.
Since reporting of the disease began in 1986, more than 100,000 cases have been documented with the state Department of Health. On average, the state averages more than 5,500 new cases a year, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office.
Ontario County is continuing an awareness campaign this spring and summer, and for good reason.
The Ontario County Health Department last year investigated 24 cases of Lyme disease, and 18 of those were confirmed. Several cases have already been confirmed this year, said Mary Beer, director of public health for the county.
“It’s really jumped in the last few years,” Beer said. “It’s a nasty disease.”
That said, people shouldn’t be afraid to go outside and enjoy the beautiful weather, Beer said.
But do take precautions and pay heed to warning signs.
Dr. David Carlson, medical director at UR Medicine’s Thompson Health Urgent Care Center in Farmington, said patients have been coming in with bites and having ticks removed since March.
The urgent care center does not often make the diagnosis of Lyme disease, because that is typically done with a primary care provider. But symptoms are divided into three categories — early, or localized, disseminated and late-stage disease, Carlson said.
Localized symptoms, which include an expanding rash near the bite and in 60 to 80 percent of cases a bull’s-eye shaped patch, can begin from a few days to a month, Carlson said. Bites often are found near the armpit, belt line, groin, or behind the knee. A person may experience virus-like symptoms of fatigue, headache and achiness.
The disease can be treated with antibiotics and a patient can recover quickly, if caught early on.
During the disseminated stage, the parasite affects the heart and nervous system — including a form of facial paralysis known as Bell’s palsy — and this can occur weeks to months after the bite.
These may be the reason a patient consults the physician, having missed the early rash phase, Carlson said.
The late stage can happen months or years after the bite and result in severe arthritis or neurologic symptoms that unfortunately mimic other conditions like meningitis, Carlson said. Late stage can also involve cognitive decline.
“In general terms, the earlier the diagnosis is made, the shorter and easier the treatment,” Carlson said. “Chronic disease is very difficult to treat and often requires help from infectious disease specialists.”
Tick-borne diseases are preventable, and prevention measures can be as simple as wearing light-colored clothing while outdoors, tucking pants into socks and shirts into pants, and wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants when practical, among others.
Repellants that contain DEET also are helpful in deterring the tick.
Also, check yourself, children and pets for ticks regularly. If one is found, remove it immediately by using fine-point tweezers. The disease is spread when a tick is attached to the body for 36 hours or more.
“Not every tick has Lyme disease,” Beer said. “But if you remove the tick right away, you decrease the potential for it.”
Trent Snyder, an avid outdoorsman and hunter who is park maintenance assistant for the town of Canandaigua, said he has been bitten by ticks and removed them himself.
In some cases, he has had to have a doctor remove them.
“It’s surprising because you never feel the tick on you, and it’s embedded,” Snyder said. “But it’s really nothing. They remove it, cover the spot with medicine and you’re good to go.”
So far, no symptoms, no problems and no disease for him, although he and other town employees are aware of the prevalence of ticks and Lyme disease and take precautions before heading outside.
“As long as we’re aware of it, we’re one step ahead,” Snyder said.
Awareness plays a big part in someday reducing the numbers.
Carlson, the urgent care physician, said public health campaigns and veterinarians who prescribe tick preventatives have been helpful.
“There seems to be greater awareness of Lyme disease in recent years,” Carlson said.
Much like a bicyclist wears a helmet and still enjoys the ride, hikers, picnickers and others can still enjoy the outdoors, as long as they protect themselves.
“I don’t want people to be afraid to go outside and enjoy the beautiful weather,” Beer said.
While Woloson still has a ways to go, she said she now feels the worst is behind her.
“I feel like I’m on the mend,” Woloson said. “I’m just happy I’m feeling better.”
By the numbers
2 The number of confirmed Lyme disease cases in Ontario County in 2005
5 The number of confirmed cases in 2012
11 The number in 2013
18 The number in 2014.
Source: Ontario County Public Health
Preventing ticks on pets
Dogs, more than cats, are susceptible to tick bites and tick-borne diseases.
As with humans, tick bites are hard to find and symptoms of tick-borne disease may not appear for as long as three weeks after a bite. Dog owners are urged to use a tick preventative on your dog.
To further reduce the chances a tick will transmit disease to you or pets:
• Check pets for ticks daily
• Remove a tick right away if one is found on the dog
• Ask your veterinarian to conduct a tick check at your dog's annual exam
Source: Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office