There is an increasing number of areas in Ontario where ticks carrying Lyme disease are found. These black-legged ticks (also known as deer ticks) attach to birds, which migrate place to place, bringing this health risk. While Lyme disease is easily treated when detected early, it can have serious health consequences if left untreated.
The Black-legged tick (Ixodes Scapularis)
The Black-legged tick is a hard-bodied biting arachnid (related to scorpions, spiders and mites) that feeds on blood. Ticks can feed on mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians and are most commonly found in outdoor areas like grassy fields, wooded areas, gardens and parks. However, ticks can be carried by birds or other animals they feed on and may be found outside these areas as well.
Ticks cannot fly or jump. Instead, they wait for a host by resting on grasses and shrubs and when a host brushes the spot where they are resting the tick quickly climbs aboard their host. Ticks must have a new host (blood meal) at every stage in their life cycle to survive. This generally lasts two years and during this time they go through four life stages: egg. six-legged larva, eight-legged nymph and adult.
Ticks vary in size and color, black/brown or grayish after a blood meal. In general, adults are approximately the size of a sesame seed and nyphal ticks are approximately the size of a poppy seed.
Ticks are very hardy; they can be one of the first invertebrates to become active in the spring and can be active even after a moderate to severe frost. Ticks are most active during late spring and summer and at this time risk of human infection is greatest.
Ticks and Lyme Disease
The Black-legged tick is the main species of tick responsible for the spreading of Lyme disease in Ontario. However, not all Black-legged ticks carry Borrelia burgdorfert, the bacterium that cases Lyme disease. According to the Kingston Frontenac Lennox and Addington Health Unit, one in five ticks in their test areas tested positive for the bacteria.
Ticks that do carry the bacteria are most likely to transmit the infection to humans if they have been attached for more then 24 hours. The bacterium requires time to travel from the tick’s gut to its salivary glands and this delay, along with quick detection and removal of the tick is one of the key methods of preventing Lyme disease.
If you find a tick attached to your body, remove it as soon as possible. If it has been attached for more than 24 hours contact you health care provider about a preventative antibiotic to lower your risk of contracting Lyme disease. If you develop a bull’s-eye rash, fever, chills, extreme fatigue or flu like symptoms see you health care provider.
How to Remove a Tick
- Do not squeeze the tick or try to burn it off
- Grasp the tick by the head as close to the skin as possible and pull it straight out gently but firmly. Use tweezers if possible
- Clean the bit area with water and soap or a disinfectant
- Make note of the day you removed the tick
How to Prevent Tick Bites
- Walk in the middle of trails away from tall grass and bushes
- Wear a long sleeved shirt and/or long pants tucked into high socks
- Wear white or light coloured clothing to make it easier to see ticks
- Spray repellent (containing DEET) on clothes and shoes before entering the woods
- Wear shoes, not bare feet or sandals
- Check your clothing, body and pets for ticks when you return from being outdoors
- Having a shower will remove a tick if it has not attached yet
- Put your clothes in the dryer on high heat for 60 minutes to kill any remaining ticks
Help Reduce Ticks Around Your Home
Ticks like to live in humid wooded areas. Here are a few recommendations to make your yard less favourable for ticks.
- Keep the grass in your yard mowed
- If your yard is bordered by fields of tall grass or woods, remove brush and fallen leaves from the edges of your property
- Creating a separation between lawns and wooded areas with a border of wood chips or gravel will help reduce the movement of ticks into your yard
- Keep areas under and around bird feeders tidy to reduce the attraction of small animals like mice and voles. They help transport ticks and are necessary hosts for ticks to complete their life cycle