Taking a hike in the woods can be a great outdoor activity away from public spaces, but with that comes the risk of tick bites and Lyme disease transmitted by the blacklegged tick. The following recommendations can help keep people safe.
“When we are talking about ticks in correlation to Lyme disease we are talking about the black legged tick. So within Ontario and eastern North America that is the only tick species that transmits Lyme disease to people. We have noticed within the last five or more years we have seen more of those ticks,” said Dr. Curtis Russell, biologist with Public Health of Ontario.
There are numerous reasons for this increase. According to Russell, the optimum habitat, warmer weather and land use can factor into the expansion of ticks.
The optimum habitat for this expansion includes moist leafy areas like brushy wooded forest habitats. According to Russell, ticks are rarely found on soccer fields in the middle of the summer in the heat.
“The biggest threat to these ticks is if they dry out and desiccate they die. So in the summer they need the moist organic leaf litter to go down into if it is hot,” said Russell.
Ticks can be found all year round, which is why many veterinarians are recommending tick medications for dogs to be applied year round. The risk is lower because they move extremely slow in the cold, but it is important to be aware that they are still alive.
“In general the cold weather does not kill a black legged tick. It just really slows them down. With ticks they are way tougher than the mosquitoes. They are quite hardy so they would stay way down in the leaf litter. If it is above zero and there is no snow on the ground you can still see an adult tick out.”
Those that spend time outdoors need to be aware of ticks and their chance of exposure, but individuals walking or riding in leafy, cool, brushy forested areas need to be even more vigilant.
Russell offers recommendations to protect oneself from tick bites.
Enjoy the outdoors in areas like Short Hills or behind Brock but keep to the middle of the trails when hiking. Avoid going off into the brushy areas.
Clothing selection is important.
“When you are outside try to wear long sleeve light coloured clothing with everything tucked. The reason we tell people to do that is because the ticks are very small and if you have light coloured clothing you have a better chance of noticing them on you and if you tuck everything in they have a lot longer way to go to get on your skin,” said Russell.
Russell also recommends bug spray with DEET and to follow the manufacturer’s label.
Once a hike or outdoor activity is finished have a buddy check your clothing for ticks. When at home, remove clothes and check for ticks on the body including behind the ears, in the armpits and groin area. Then have a shower or a bath, which may help wash off the tick before it has a chance to bite.
If a tick has bitten and embedded in the skin, the faster it is removed the less chance the blacklegged tick has to pass on Lyme disease. For proper removal, Russell recommends fine needle-tipped tweezers — not the blunt ones for eyebrow tweezing.
“The only recommended way to remove a tick is to use fine forceps grabbing the tick at the base and pulling it straight out. All those other home remedies: burning the ticks, the vaseline and all those other ones are not recommended. Just pull the tick straight out. They lock themselves in so they don’t come out very easily so you really have to tug on them.”
It is good practice to wash clothing once at home and then dry them for the full cycle or put them in the dryer for a minimum of 10 minutes. According to Russell, the high heat in the dryer will kill them.
If a tick is found, Russell recommends sending it to local public health where these submissions can help with surveillance of the tick populations. A new identification tool called etick.ca is available to the public.
“[Etick] is an online program where you can take a picture of your tick and you can submit the picture to them and give them a little information and within 48 hours they can tell you the type of tick it was.”
Russell stresses that many people do not realize how small ticks really are. An adult tick is the size of a sesame seed and a nymph is the size of a poppy seed. They can get into the tiny holes in the weave of the fabric of clothing so sticky lint rollers may not work in catching them. They are also very hard to notice.
If an individual has concerns about their health it is important to tell their physician. Tell them that they may have been exposed to ticks, where you may have been exposed and how long you might have been exposed for.
“We get a lot of tick submissions in spring and fall. The nymph, which is the middle stage poppy seed size tick, comes out in the summer and people don’t notice them. If we look at our human cases, their exposure time was in the summer and most of them do not have a record of a tick bite because they never noticed the nymph. So in the summertime, just because you don’t find [a tick] doesn’t mean you didn’t have one [on you],” said Russell.
If you spend time outdoors in any season check for ticks regularly and follow these instructions to stay safe.
For more information go to cdc.gov/lyme or publichealthontario.ca.