Don’t let yourself get ticked off by Lyme Disease

I think I have one of the coolest jobs here at the Cataraqui Region Conservation Authority. As the biologist, there are a number of functions I fulfill and lots of them have to do with animals, fish and insects.

I deal with anything that is ecological in nature – everything that’s in the trees, fields, meadows, and the water. I provide comments for our planning staff including environmental impact statements for developments. So I see how things like a new subdivision or work along a waterfront will affect the wildlife.

I also deal with individual landowners about a host of topics including invasive species or people who want to improve their land from an ecological standpoint.

Right now, one of the biggest issues I am dealing with is helping to raise awareness of the danger of ticks, those nasty little (and I mean little!) insects who lurk in the bushes, tall grass and trees, waiting to pounce. Besides being an annoyance, their bite can lead to an unpleasant bout of Lyme Disease. The number of ticks has grown steadily over the past few years, to the point where this part of the province is now considered to be a real tick ‘hot spot.’

Tick identificationThe main culprit is the black-legged tick. They live on the forest edge, in leaf litter, tall grasses and shrubs or weeds. And you can actually encounter them any time of the year. I once had a tick on me and it was -5 C and it was crawling on my leg.

The prevalence of ticks has risen over the last 10 years or so. Back then, tick occurrences were very low and even lower for tick bites, so we weren’t really that concerned. But they are now establishing fairly strong populations. In the early 2000s there was a tiny hot spot in the 1000 Islands, but the range has extended north in and around Kingston and now they are quite common to the area.

Climate change has a lot to do with the spread because the animals that carry these ticks are moving into this habitat. In the 1000 Islands there was a fairly high deer population in some places and these ticks are often associated with deer. They are also being carried on birds and the white-footed mouse, which has also multiplied its numbers around here.

And our conservation areas, like any wooded or grassy area, can be a haven for ticks. So there are a number of things you can do to prevent yourself from attracting ticks. If you do what we suggest it will also mean a much lower chance of getting Lyme Disease.

A lot of the preventative measures are personal protective things. Wearing light colours is a good start because if you are wearing lighter coloured shirts and pants you can see the ticks crawling on your clothes and brush them off.

Any way you can prevent a tick from having contact with bare skin is a good thing and reducing access to you skin through things like tucking your pant leg into your socks, wearing long-sleeved shirts and also using bug repellants. The local health unit recommends using products with DEET, which seem to be the most effective.

And walk on mown or short grass. Walking on trail surfaces that are managed isn’t going to be as much of a risk. The ticks are basically lurking around on hanging vegetation, so when you walk by they are waiting on top of that grass or leaf or branch, waiting for something to brush up against it. As soon as something does, they latch onto it and that’s how it transfers to your body.

After returning from your nature walk, hike or trek out to your own back woods, carefully checking for ticks is a crucial next step. And you have to check for ones at the different stages of their life cycle.

You can have the larvae, the nymph and adult. At the larval stage it’s no bigger than a flake of pepper, so you have to show real diligence and look very closely. Even when you are doing a tick check over the entire body it may look like a small freckle. They are very tiny and hard to see. Even at the adult stage, it’s not like you’re looking for something the size of a ladybug. You’ve got to really check thoroughly.

If you indeed find one, there are very specific ways it needs to be removed. The big caution that I have is the use of tweezers. People want to reach for household tweezers or eyebrow pluckers, but these typically have a flat blade. Imagine the tick as a small balloon attached to your body, when you squeeze the tick with the flat blade, it’s like you’re just pumping the air from the balloon into you. With the tick, you’re basically injecting yourself with the bacteria.

Tick RemovalReally fine-tipped tweezers or forceps can get right down to the head of the tick. Remember, you have to imagine you are trying to remove a flake of black pepper. It’s important to remove it right at the head – that’s the key. There are a number of over-the-counter products and many are available from pet stores. It really is very much the same technique you use when removing a nail from a piece of wood.

So, to wrap up, if you take the necessary precautions and you are diligent in the way you check for ticks, the likelihood you’re going to run into a problem is minimal. But it’s important that you are taking the necessary steps in order to protect yourself. It really isn’t that much different than protecting yourself against mosquitoes and black-flies. The main difference is checking yourself when you get home.

Thanks for reading this first installment of what I intend on being a regular blog posting, talking about my job, my department, and some of the interesting projects and tasks we do here at the Cataraqui Region Conservation Authority.

A follow-up blog will examine the same issue but from the perspective of KFLA Public Health, with a special guest blogger. For more information on ticks visit the Tick and Lyme Disease Facts page on our website.

Tom Beaubiah - Biologist for the Cataraqui Region Conservation Authority