Lyme disease cases in Ohio more than triple: How to protect yourself from ticks

CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - An explosion of ticks in northeast Ohio is leading to a dramatic rise in the number of Lyme disease cases.

It only takes 36 hours for ticks to transfer diseases to people or pets. If caught in time, doctors can prescribe antibiotics to treat Lyme disease, but if it goes unnoticed for too long, chronic Lyme disease can derail people's lives.

Headaches, exhaustion and pain are all struggles Patricia Gainey puts up with every day. Doctors told her ticks are to blame.

"It's hard. You're fighting. You're fighting just to move," said Gainey.

It's a fight the 37-year-old has given her all for more than a decade. Gainey has chronic Lyme disease. The problem is, it took doctors years to detect it and now there's no cure.

"It's becoming so debilitating, it's affecting the joints in my knees. I have to have my second surgery," she said.

Gainey isn't alone, Cleveland Clinic Doctor Alan Taege said Lyme disease has skyrocketed in Ohio over the last five years.

Experts said they aren't exactly sure why ticks are becoming more common in Ohio, but it could be because of the warmer weather we've had over the last few years.

"We used to average about 40 cases per year, and now we're approaching 150 or more," Dr. Taege said.

That's just the number of cases doctors send into the CDC. Because of that, doctors believe the number of Lyme disease cases is actually about 10 times higher, which means about 1,500 people in Ohio get Lyme disease every year.

Glen Needham's a tick expert with Ohio State University.
"Each female can lay 2,000 eggs," Needham said. "Pretty soon the hot spots start merging together and you have ticks more widespread, and that's what we're seeing in the state."

Cleveland 19 News went to Ashtabula to look for ticks with Needham. It only took minutes to find several ticks.

Some ticks are so tiny you can barely see them and you can't feel them crawling on your skin, which is why it's important to wear insect repellent with DEET.

"Most dogs and people get Lyme disease from the nymph stage, which is about the size of a poppy seed," Needham said.

Even though they're tiny, ticks can be debilitating.

"It can go anywhere from causing irregularities or problems in heart rhythm, to causing arthritis, maybe even a Bell's palsy, where people get the droop on one side of their face," Dr. Taege said.

Symptoms can take days, weeks or even months to show up.

Dr. Taege said only one-third of people show early signs, like fever, chills or muscle and joint pain. A target-like rash is much more common. Treatment is the only way to get rid of Lyme disease. Unfortunately, for Gainey, doctors caught Lyme too late.

"There's times where I can't even move my legs sometimes and it's just because it's attacking my nerves, it's attacking my muscle framework, all that," Gainey said.

Gainey has been on 10 antibiotics, gone through a handful of procedures and spent countless days in the hospital.

"You feel like a disease, you feel like a burden to other people," she said.

Despite everything she's been through, Gainey isn't letting the debilitating disease drain her. As the tick population soars, she's drumming up awareness and hopes to protect others from Lyme disease.

Ticks aren't just in the woods, people can get them in the park or their own backyards.

Experts recommend doing a full tick check on you, your kids and your pets, after spending time outside. If you find a tick on you, the best way to get it off is to use tweezers to get down close to the skin and pull the tick straight out.