It’s the summer of Tick Mania with hysteria all over the internet from lyme disease to ticks that make you allergic to meat. I’ve become a self proclaimed tick expert and just because I don’t have the Phd letters behind MichelletheRunner – tick expert, I’m pretty confident I have the credentials. How did I become so obsessed with ticks and lyme disease prevention? It’s like anything really, if they leave you alone, you pretty much ignore the problem, but once they attack, it’s time to fight back. The best way to fight ticks is to understand them and educate yourself about just how dangerous they can be.
This past spring, I went camping in a hot spot for lyme disease carrying ticks. I knew what I was going into but it was still early spring so I didn’t think much of it. Ticks however are growing more and more resilient to our winters. Years ago they would die off, now they are able to hibernate since our temperatures continue to stay pretty mild all winter. My dogs and I hiked through much of the Frontenac park and days after our trip was over, ticks started literally popping up all over my dogs. I counted 13 in total over a span of two weeks. Making sure I picked off all the ticks and bagged them for identification, they were all in fact deer ticks. Deer ticks are the ones that carry lyme disease. The dogs went on the tick prevention medication and the ticks started to instantly die. Of course, I did a full body check every morning and every night of myself and the dogs for a month straight until I was sure all ticks were gone. I was definitely in a panic; ticks in the woods are one things, but ticks in my house! EECCKK!!!
It didn’t stop there though, I went back to Frontenac park to do some more running and camping with my FKT girls of the Wild Bruce Chase. After 37km of hiking and basically having to sleep on the side of the highway, I woke up with a tick lodged in my arm. My worst nightmare just came true. Now I was mad and wanted this thing out of my arm immediately. With the mouthparts still lodged, I went to the emergency hospital in Kingston and they removed everything for me. While a major discussion about ticks, their mouth parts and why lyme disease is actually pretty hard to get went on for quite some time, I decided I needed to stop googling and get something more medical.
The doctor sent me home with a 20 page document from the infectious disease centre in the U.S.A. American’s have so much more experience with ticks than the doctors up here in Canada do. I felt like I was given the secret scrolls to a buried treasure. I read the documents front to back and back to front and I was able to now calmly explain to others how to deal with ticks.
Not all ticks are harmful, but we have to safely assume the tick you are dealing with is a deer tick and most likely is carrying lyme disease. That sentence probably doesn’t make you feel any better I’m sure, but trust me, lyme disease is actually easy to treat and hard to get. A tick does not move quickly at all. Once it catches a ride on a host, it can take up to 24 hours to find the perfect spot to feed. They like hot warm places where the blood source is easy to get to, like underarms, crotch areas, behind knees, and behind ears. The tick can not spread the bacteria that causes lyme disease (Borrelia burgdorferi) unless it actually lodges into your skin.
Let’s say a tick does catch a ride on you while you were running through the woods, and you didn’t do a full body check before jumping in your car. Now the tick, which you probably won’t feel crawling on your skin, will find a feeding spot. Like a construction worker, this tick sets up shop. They start by literally drilling into the skin, winding themselves deeper towards a blood source. Once the get deep enough they sort of release two anchors so they can then start feeding without the danger of being dislodged. This whole process again can take hours, and by the time the tick starts drilling you should be able to feel it. When I got my bite, my entire arm was throbbing in pain and the area around it was swollen and red. I honestly don’t know how you can not notice a tick bite! I have read so many stories of people being bit and not knowing they had been. Either way, whether you feel it or not, there’s still time to prevent infection.
The tick now has to be lodged in your skin for 24 hours before you are considered at risk of getting Lyme Disease. The tick has to become bloated with blood and you will know when you see a bloated tick. Once it’s bloated, because ticks just can’t get enough, they will regurgitate a little bit back into your bloodstream just so they can eat just a little bit more. It’s when they regurgitate that you have a higher chance of contracting lyme disease, since the bacteria lives in their stomach, not their mouth. This is why when you see a bloated tick on your or your animal, DO NOT squeeze it’s abdomen.
Once a tick has had it’s full blood meal, it will drop off by itself. It’s a popular myth that ticks jump or can fly. This is 100% false. Ticks can only grab onto a host by hanging out in tall grass with it’s sticky front legs waiting patiently for a warm blooded creature to make contact with it.
Lyme Disease is a serious condition and can get complicated really quickly. Generally the first signs and symptoms of lyme disease happen within two weeks to months of exposure starting with sometimes a bullseye rash (not everyone gets this), to feeling fatigue and under the weather. These symptoms are the first signs and often times can get misdiagnosed. The later stages of lyme disease can affect your heart, brain and neurological system, making treatment slightly more complicated. There is no such thing as chronic lyme disease, but the lasting affects of untreated lyme disease can take years to recover from. What a patient who describes themselves as having chronic lyme disease is in fact talking about a side affect of having lyme disease that is most likely going to be something they have for the rest of their life, but it’s not longer actually lyme disease.
The best prevention is education and arming yourself before going to high tick populated areas. Wearing high socks, light colour clothing and/or long pants tucked into your socks, pre-treating your clothing with tick repellent and wearing deet is the best defence. Once you are finished running, hiking or cycling, take a few minutes to check yourself and your friends. Check everywhere! Since ticks are so small, they can get in almost anywhere, even inside your shoes. If you find one, DO NOT squish it with your hands, since the bacteria could then spread to you. Flick if off or pick it off with tweezers and throw it in a bottle of alcohol (to kill it).
If a tick has lodged in your skin, DO NOT panic. The best thing is spend very little time messing around with it. A tick who is feeding, when sensing an attack from a predator will regurgitate immediately to dislodge itself so it can escape. You want to pull that bugger out as soon as possible. Tweezers or tick keys are great and you just pinch as closely to it’s mouth parts as possible and pull straight up. If you don’t have either of those, a credit card is your next best tool. You just scrap the tick off, leaving the mouth parts in your skin. They mouth parts will dissolve and generally won’t cause any issue unless you are allergic to their saliva. If you really don’t want the mouth parts stuck in your skin, then a doctor or hospital will remove them for you, like they did for me.
If you’ve been bit and you know about it, then watch for bullseye rashes or symptoms of lyme disease over the next month. There is no point rushing to your doctor for a lyme disease blood test since it takes about 6-8 weeks for the bacteria to show up in a blood test. The treatment if you do end up getting it is pretty simple. Up to a month of doxycycline once a day and things will clear up just fine.
The reason why I am less concerned about ticks, is that I go to places that have ticks almost every weekend. I have a recorded account in my running/hiking logs of where and when I was in contact with them. If I start to display weird symptoms a month out from spending a weekend in and around Niagara trails, I’m going to immediately suspect lyme disease and get proper treatment right away. The problem happens for those that don’t frequent these spots often, they might go into a trail system and not know ticks hang out there. They may get bit, not feel it and since this is not usual for them, once they start to have strange flu like symptoms, they will easily slip through the cracks being misdiagnosed for months or even years. This has happened a lot when ticks first started showing up in these parts of Canada and awareness was extremely low.
Thankfully Ontario Health has finally stepped up their education and awareness about ticks, where the hot spots are and prevention. On top of that Guelph recently received a huge amount of private funding to find better ways to prevent lyme disease and other tick borne illnesses. The more I’ve learned through my own experience and speaking with others, the less afraid I am to continue experiencing the amazing nature that Ontario and Canada has to offer.