With summer here and wanting to be outside we are exposing ourselves to a bigger problem with ticks invading our environment. Due to changing climates, milder winters, increased precipitation, tick populations have been expanding for over 20 years. No longer are they limited to wilderness woody areas, but have surged through as far North as Yellowknife and larger urban centers like Toronto. There’s approximately 40 species of ticks in Canada but fortunately only a few bite humans. Lyme Disease (Deer tick) is now carried not only by deer but infected migrating song birds traveling from the States and different rodents. In 2016 the number of cases reported in Canada jumped to 987 from 144! These are the reported and there are hundreds of cases that go undetected. Like mosquitos which are not all carriers of diseases like West Nile Virus and Zika, ticks similarly are not all carriers but many areas register greater than 50% infected.
In Western Canada the 2 common ticks are Black-Legged Tick (Lyme Disease) and the Rocky Mountain Wood Tick (Rocky Mountain spotted fever).
One tick can lay thousands of eggs which can winter under dead vegetation and snow and survive mild winters. More ticks exist in rural areas particularly a deciduous forest but can be found wherever there’s vegetation and wildlife like city parks, treed lots, and trails. Ticks will jump on people and animals brushing past. Young ticks will be the size of a poppy seed, hard to see, adults the size of a flax seed or bigger when engorged. The Rocky Mountain Wood Tick is similar size but has a reddish brown body with reddish brown legs.
TICK PROOFING TECHNIQUES
Here are some tips to decreasing the risks of contact.
- Keep less skin exposed when walking through trails and ground vegetation. Wear closed shoes and tuck in clothing.
- Wear bug spray, particularly on legs arms and around neck and shoulders. Ticks, like mosquitos go for the warm moist areas like between toes, the back of the neck, armpits, behind knees, groin areas and belt line.
- You won’t necessarily feel a tick when it bites as it has an antihistamine and anesthetic to prevent itching and swelling until after it has finished feeding. Changing shortly after an outside activity and airing clothes on high heat for 10 minutes or washing immediately will kill ticks. Ideally showering right after a hike will reduce the odds of a tick attaching and again reducing that risk for bacterial infection.
- Kids and pets are more susceptible to ticks. Protect children with bug safe spray and inspect them after being outside. Dogs can contract Lyme Disease and can bring ticks into the house that then can infect humans or other dogs. Ask your vet about medication to prevent tick disease. Tick collars can also be used on dogs. And for the cat lovers, it’s welcome news that they rarely contract tick borne diseases.
- Burning or squishing a tick will remove it from the skin?
A- No, only removing with a tweezer.
- It’s dangerous to leave a tick head behind?
A- No it’s likely the mouth part and if it won’t brush off it will work out on its own.
- You will get a rash if bitten?
A- No, only 50-80% of people bitten will see an itchy rash in the area develop over the next number of days. With Lyme Disease the typical “bulls eye” rash is less than 50% and therefore getting a rash at all is not a reliable indicator of being bitten.
- Ticks carry bacteria that cause diseases like Lyme and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever?
A- The infected tick population will vary but the numbers in general keep growing. You can check if you live in a high risk area by going to Canada.ca/lymedisease and click on “Risks” to find your province and problem areas.
- As soon as being bitten you’ve contacted Lyme Disease or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever?
A- No, it takes 24-36 hours for the tick to transmit bacteria which means it stays latched on the skin. If the tick is spotted after a few minutes or a couple hours, the risk is less likely but it still can happen. Any unusual signs or symptoms of being unwell should be investigated.
DIAGNOSING AND TREATMENT
Lyme Disease, if not diagnosed early (first 3 months), can become a chronic autoimmune multisystem disease. Because Lyme Disease masquerades similar to at least 300 different conditions, it’s important for a high degree of suspicion when there are peculiar or vague symptoms, evidence of a bite, negative routine tests or strange complexes of odd ball complaints.
Lyme creates inflammation in the body, caused by a strain of Borrelia bacteria carried by the Black-Legged Tick with the commonest being deer. Some of the more frequent symptom complaints are-increased fatigue/weakness, headaches, fever, GI upset, muscle and joint pains. These are also the symptoms of many viral infections including influenza. It’s important you see a Doctor if you are suspicious because of being in recent exposure areas or you have a bite mark/rash that is inconsistent with a mosquito, yellow jacket or ant bite.
Unfortunately, the blood tests for the Borrelia Burgdorfi bacteria can have a “false negative” of around 50% with standard Canadian testing kits. If the test is negative but your Doctor feels that your circumstance and symptoms are highly suggestive of Lyme Disease they will often treat. Several types of anti-biotic protocols can be used and sometimes need repeating. There are labs in Europe and the States that have better sophisticated sensitive testing labs that can be accessed. These can be found online along with MD’s that specialize in treating Lyme Disease. The Provincial Lyme Society website is very useful to find in depth information and physicians in the area that treat Lyme Disease.
If months pass and the symptoms are attributed to something else or initial testing is negative, the disease progressives to many body systems. There will be increased deterioration to extreme weakness and fatigue, loss of energy and stamina, arthritis like joint pain and long term neurological problems. SO BE AWARE – It likely will take you, the patient, pressing for answers for the increased deterioration in your health to find the source. As Lyme bearing ticks have invaded more and more of Canada in the last 5-10 years, more Doctors are on the lookout for the possibility of this disabling condition.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN SPOTTED FEVER (RMSF)
This has been referred to as “Blue Disease” and is the most lethal and frequently reported illness in the United States carried by Ticks. It generally was confined to the southern US but again has found its way throughout the Americas. This tick has been reported in Western Canada and as far south as Brazil. This tick carries bacteria called Rickettsia Rickettsi. The symptoms with this disease are more dramatic and more rapid, typically showing up with a high fever, headaches, nausea and with a measle like rash. It was first identified in the Rocky Mountain Region in the United States in the 1930’s long before they had antibiotics to treat the condition, so mortality was significantly high at 30% or greater. RMSF is a serious and potentially life threatening infectious disease. Approximately 5% of people will die from the infection despite effective antibiotic protocols available. Like Lyme Disease, diagnosis in early stages can be difficult as symptoms generally do not start till 1 to 2 weeks after the bite. Initial symptoms are non-specific and again can masquerade as other infectious or viral diseases. The rash is generalized, starts on the limbs and works its way to the trunk. In about 80% of patients the palms and soles are even affected which is highly unusual in other types of conditions that cause rash.
The American Dog Tick and the Rocky Mountain Wood Tick are responsible for this disease process. Transfer time is much shorter than with Lyme Disease, only about 2 hours but generally only up to 3% of these two type of ticks carry the bacteria which makes it far less risky for exposure to contact R. Rickettsi.
Rocky Mountain Wood Tick
CONSEQUENCES OF INFECTION
Rickettsia over time will migrate to vital organs such as the brain, skin and heart. Again like Lyme Disease, people can develop permanent disabilities because of infection going undetected. These again will involve multiple organ deterioration in brain function, balance, paralysis, blindness, deafness. Unlike Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF) will show changes in routine blood tests and skin biopsy and serological testing are quite accurate. Unfortunately these tests are generally not accurate until the first week of infection. As a rule antibiotic treatment is started as soon as there is a suspicion of RMSF because of the severe consequences of this tick infection.
Tick infections need to be kept in perspective. It’s still possible to enjoy many activities outside without an underlying high anxiety about the consequences. Dressing appropriately for the activity, using bug spray, checking the skin for any ticks or marks of bites after activity, and seeking medical care if there is suspicion that you have been bit by a tick will greatly reduce a Lyme Disease infection. If you have collected a tick off your skin, it’s very important testing and treatment for Lyme and RMSF will be done in a timely manner to reduce the risk of consequences for both of these serious diseases.