I’m getting ready to go on a week-long camping trip that will involve lots of hiking. I’ve read that the risk of Lyme disease is higher this summer than previous ones. What can I do to protect myself and what should I do if I think I have a tick?
With summer here and more time being spent outdoors, your question is a timely one. In the past, ticks were thought to be simply an irritating nuisance, but we now know that their bites can carry potentially serious consequences. The good news is that although this is a real concern, there are some simple steps you can take to prevent getting infected from a bite.
Ticks can harbour and transmit many different infections, the most well known being Lyme disease. Specifically, it is the black-legged or deer tick that carries Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. The ticks pick up the bacteria when they bite infected mice or deer, then the bacteria can be transmitted to a human when an infected tick bites our skin. If you do get bitten, it takes 24 to 36 hours for the bacteria to transfer into your body. So if you can remove the tick within this time frame, you can decrease the risk of getting infected.
It is important to note that most people who are bitten do not get Lyme disease. For those who do, however, early symptoms can include fever, headache and fatigue and may be accompanied by a characteristic circular rash that looks like a bull's eye . If left untreated, an infection can develop in the heart, joints and central nervous system. For most, though, the infection can be cleared with antibiotics, especially if caught early.
The risk of Lyme disease is higher this summer because of our warmer climate and an increase in the number of deer and migrating birds in Canada, which bring in more ticks into the area. So prevention is key.
First, know where ticks live. The Public Health Agency of Canada regularly checks the concentration of ticks in some of the big provincial parks across the country. If you suspect ticks may be a problem where you’re going, avoid walking in high grass and cover up areas that may be exposed by tucking your pants into boots or socks and wearing closed shoes and sandals. Check your pets to make sure they aren’t carrying ticks into your home and keep animals out of the woods. (Pet owners can buy ointment from veterinarians to prevent ticks, or put an anti-tick collar on their animal to prevent bites.) Consider applying a tick-specific insect repellent to effectively and safely keep them away.
After coming in from being outdoors, perform a self-inspection to see if any ticks have attached to your skin. Their bites can be painless and ticks are small (the size of a poppy seed) so they can be hard to detect.
If you do find a tick, take some sharp tweezers and grasp the tick’s head close to the skin and pull upward to completely remove it. If you are not comfortable removing it, see a health care provider. Disinfect the area with rubbing alcohol afterward. Then you'll want to save the tick to show your doctor. It can be stored in a plastic jar or bottle with a moist cotton ball and then kept in a cool place.
If you get sick, see your doctor and let him or her know if you were in a high-risk tick area. Again, it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone who is bitten gets Lyme disease, but it is good to be aware so you can enjoy your time outdoors and prevent infection.
Send family doctor Sheila Wijayasinghe your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.
The content provided in The Globe and Mail’s Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.