8 Things You Didn’t Know About Ticks and Lyme Disease

You may have heard about Lyme disease, but how much do you really know about this tick-borne illness and how can you keep your family protected this summer?

Lyme disease is carried by blacklegged ticks, more commonly known as deer ticks. These ticks live in brushy, wooded areas, tall grasses and on the leaf-covered floors of deciduous forests. If you walk or hike into these thick, brushy areas and an infected tick bites you, it may transmit the disease into you. In Ontario last year, approximately 370 cases of Lyme disease were reported. To protect yourself and your family from tick bites and possible illness, it’s a good idea for people in Ontario and across Canada to be aware of areas known to have Lyme disease, especially when taking part in outdoor activities during the summer.

Here are 8 more things you might not know about ticks and lyme disease:

1. It takes at least 24 to 36 hours for an infected blacklegged tick to transmit the Lyme disease bacteria to you.

It’s important to note that not all blacklegged ticks carry the bacteria, so discovering a blacklegged tick attached to you does not automatically mean you will get Lyme disease. Also, the risk of developing Lyme disease, even in areas where over 1 in 5 ticks carries the Lyme disease bacteria, is very low, on the order of 1-3 per 100 people bitten by infected ticks.

2. You should never try to “burn” a tick to remove it from the skin.

In fact, burning a tick may inadvertently cause Lyme bacteria to be injected into the skin. The same is true for using nail polish, petroleum jelly or another substance on the tick to try to make it pull away from your skin.

The safest and most effective way to remove an attached tick: Use fine-tipped tweezers and gently but firmly grasp the tick as close to your skin as possible. Pull the tick straight out. Don’t squeeze the tick as squeezing it can cause Lyme bacteria to be accidentally introduced into your body.

3. Not everyone gets the tell-tale “bulls-eye” rash from a Lyme disease infection.

Common symptoms of early Lyme disease include fever, headache, fatigue, swollen glands or an expanding non-itchy rash. People with Lyme disease often see symptoms after one to two weeks. But you can see symptoms as early as three days or as long as a month after a tick bite.

That’s why it’s helpful to be aware of areas known to carry a risk of Lyme disease. Providing this information can help your physician decide on treatment.

4. Ticks can be very hard to notice.

An adult tick is about the size of a sesame seed while a nymph is the size of a poppy seed. If you go to an area where blacklegged ticks live, check yourself carefully for ticks after you leave that area.

Pay close attention to areas where ticks are more likely to get onto your body or into your clothes — including your scalp, ankles, behind your knees, your armpits and your groin area. Use a mirror to check the back of your body or have someone else check for you. Showering immediately after an outdoor activity can wash away any ticks that have not yet attached.

To protect yourself against tick bites, wear light-coloured clothes when you’re moving through brushy areas so you can see a tick on you. Also, don’t skip the DEET. A bug repellent containing DEET or Icaridin is effective at keeping ticks away. Make sure you read label directions for use or ask your pharmacist for help when choosing a DEET product.

5. Ticks like to live in brushy, wooded, forest areas with lots of leaf litter on the ground or in tall grassy areas.

Ticks do not survive well in fields with short-cut grass (like those in soccer fields or in city parks) or in rocky terrain. Ticks also don’t fly. They are also opportunistic feeders, often hanging from leaves or branches and latching onto a passing animal or person that brushes by for a feeding.

6. Climate change is contributing to the spread of blacklegged tick populations and Lyme disease in North America.

A decade ago, Lyme disease was largely known as a disease affecting the northeastern United States with relatively few cases in Canada. As temperatures increased due to climate change, coupled with changes to environmental conditions such as tick habitat, deer and rodent populations, and land use, we have seen the gradual growth and expansion of blacklegged ticks and Lyme disease in Canada.

7. Symptoms from untreated Lyme disease can lead to more serious health issues and take longer to treat.

Symptoms can include recurring arthritis and neurological problems. Although uncommon, fatalities from Lyme disease have been reported.

See a health care professional as early as possible if you feel unwell in the weeks following a tick bite, and particularly if you were in a known risk area for Lyme disease. Be sure to tell them about your tick bite. The earlier treatment is received the better. Most cases of Lyme disease can be treated successfully with a few weeks of antibiotics.

8. Your pets could put you at risk for Lyme.

Ticks may attach to pets, be carried indoors and then drop onto carpets, flooring or furniture and reattach to people in the household. Regularly check pets that spend time outdoors for ticks, and talk to your veterinarian about appropriate tick control methods for your pet.

Dr. Doug Sider is the medical director for Communicable Disease Prevention and Control at Public Health Ontario. He has a background in community medicine with a particular focus on vector-borne diseases like Lyme Disease and West Nile Virus.

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