Taking a hike is good for both physical and mental health, but along with that feeling of well-being might come a microscopic predator that could turn that effort into something that threatens rather than boosts your health.
In woodlands, tall grasses and hiking trails across Ontario lie Black-legged ticks. These parasitic organisms feed on the blood of animals and humans and carry many diseases, the most serious of which is Lyme disease. On average, one in five of these creatures in Ontario carry the bacterium that causes this disease, and climate change is expanding their habitat across the country.
Lyme disease is a potentially serious and growing health risk. In her 2022 report, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam flagged it as a disease to monitor, noting that the number of cases across Canada have been increasing dramatically over the past decade. Left untreated, it can cause a host of recurring problems including muscle and joint pain, neurological and cardiac issues. It is most treatable when caught early while the infection is localized around the bite.
Ticks are most active in the spring and summer, but can be found any time of year when the temperature is above freezing. Members of the arachnid family, these creatures are unable to jump or fly, and thrive in wooded areas with undergrowth and leaf litter that keeps the ground damp. Brushing against bushes or long grass allows them to transfer onto passersby, who are usually oblivious to their passengers. Even when they bite, ticks often go unnoticed, in part because they tend to attach to areas of the body that are difficult to see, such as the scalp, armpit, back and behind the knees. The most distinguishing identifying feature of a fresh bite is a rash in the shape of a bull’s eye.
Only the Black-legged tick is a potential carrier of Lyme disease. Adults are typically red and dark brown in colour and very small (1 to 5 mm in length) when unfed. Young ticks, or nymphs, are lighter in colour and even smaller in size. As ticks feed, they can grow to the size of a grape. All active stages of ticks feed on blood in order to grow and develop. If you find a tick and want it identified, a photo of the creature can be submitted to www.etick.ca, which will identify the species and provide expert advice if it is a black-legged variety.
Local reports of tick activity have already begun. Millbrook Pharmacist Steve Suszko has seen a number of resident inquiries seeking advice for tick bites over the past few weeks. With new prescribing powers introduced in January, he can now offer more than advice. If the tick bite has occurred within 24 hours, Suszko can prescribe an antibiotic called doxycycline, which is a tetracycline class of antibiotic which is used in the treatment of infections caused by bacteria and certain parasites such as ticks. If part of the parasite remains attached, he directs clients to visit their primary care provider to ensure the tick is removed in a manner that that minimizes the risk of infection from the wound area.
Of course, prevention is the best defense, so experts advise dressing in long, light coloured clothing and tucking long pants into socks to reduce the chance of ticks hopping aboard. The application of an insect repellent containing DEET on clothes and exposed skin will also help keep ticks away. When hiking, stick to the middle of the trail to minimize contact with bushes and long grasses. Upon return, a clothing and body check will locate any unwanted hitchhikers, and a quick shower after being on the trails can wash away ticks that have not yet attached. The sooner ticks are found, the easier they are to remove. Using a pair of fine-tipped tweezers, ticks can be gently pulled straight out with no twisting to ensure the entire creature is removed. Wash the affected area with soap or hand sanitizer. An infected tick has to be feeding for at least 24 hours before it can effectively transmit the bacteria to a human host, so timely removal is key to preventing Lyme disease.
For more information about ticks and Lyme disease prevention, visit www.peterboroughpublichealth.ca. KG