Growing up on a farm in Saskatchewan I am no stranger to ticks. From April right through to the end of summer the ticks were always out on the farm. And we spent a lot of time outside. Finding ticks on us, something just crawling, often embedded, was just a regular occurrence for us. I’m not saying I like those little suckers, I think they are disgusting, but finding them and removing them was just something you dealt with. Of course when I was a kid ticks were relatively harmless. Lyme disease was a term we had heard of but where we lived it seemed like one of those “exotic” infections that we didn’t need to really worry about. And we didn’t. But things are a little different now. Ticks with Lyme are becoming more and more common in Canada. Thankfully it’s still quite rare here in Saskatchewan but bugs don’t respect boarders so it’s prudent to be vigilant and take precautions.
Although there are a number of species of ticks here in Canada the three most common are the American Dog Tick (commonly called the wood tick) and the Black Legged Tick (often called the deer tick) and the Western Black Legged Tick.
The American Dog Tick is the one you will see most often in my neck of the woods, Saskatchewan, and the provinces east of Saskatchewan.
The good news is this widely common tick is not known to carry Lyme. The bad news is that the Dog Tick can carry Rocky Mountain Fever. For some reason we don’t hear a lot these days about Rocky Mountain Fever even thought it is the most widely spread fatal tick borne disease in the US (it’s not as common in Canada but it does exist).
The Black Legged and Western Black Legged Ticks are the ticks you might find in parts of Canada that are known to carry Lyme. They are much smaller than the Dog Tick and do not have the white markings.
As the name implies, the Western Black Legged Tick is found in the west (BC) and the Black Legged Tick (or Deer Tick) can be found in other parts of Canada. Lyme disease and “Chronic Lyme Disease” are hot topics these days. Lyme is relatively new to Canada and some argue that the diagnosis and treatment of Lyme in Canada has not kept pace with the prevalence of the disease itself. And although it’s certainly accepted that Lyme disease exists the notion that chronic Lyme does is a contentious topic and one that I won’t get into much here other than to say the CDC officially calls it Post-treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome (PTLDS).
It doesn’t matter which tick you are trying to avoid (obviously we want to avoid them all) you will use the same common sense approach. First you need to know where ticks like to hang out, which is in bushy areas with tall grass. Now for some people it might be easy to avoid areas like that. But if you are outdoorsy family like we are, well you are going to find yourself in places where ticks like to lurk. So here’s what you can do to minimize your risk:
- If you are out in the “bush” try as much as possible to stay on paths and out of long grass.
- Cover up – Wear long sleeve shirts as well as pants and socks. And then tuck your pants into your socks. Wearing light coloured clothes also makes it easier to spot any ticks that might manage to get on you.
- Use an insect repellent that contains DEET – preferably one that contains 20-30%.
- If possible, bathe or shower within 2 hours of being in a tick zone so you can spot and wash off any you may have missed. If that’s not possible then at least do a very thorough tick check on everyone. Ticks love to hide in places like behind the ears, in belly buttons, in joints like knees and elbows and, of course, hair.
- If you have access to a clothes dryer put all of the clothes you were wearing through a 10 minute cycle on high heat. If you are out camping and can’t immediately wash your clothes leave them outside.
- The easiest way to remove ticks from clothing is with duct tape so make sure to pack it in your hiking/camping bag. If you find a tick on your clothes just place a piece of duct tape over it, gently pull it off and then fold the tape over itself. You can also do this on skin if it’s not a very sensitive area and the tick has NOT attached itself.
Removing a tick
Even the most cautious person who spends a significant amount of time in tick infested areas is bound to have a tick attach itself. It’s really important to know the proper way to remove them. There are a million old tips and tricks about the best way to remove a tick. Most of them are wrong. You want to remove that tick quickly and smoothly. You don’t want to suffocate him with vaseline. You don’t want to burn him with a match head. And you do not want to twist him (remember he didn’t corkscrew his way into you). What you don’t want to do is irritate this little sucker. Why? Because, to put this bluntly, you do not want him to puke while his head is embedded under your skin.
What you DO want to do is pull that tick straight out. With narrow ended tweezers. They are an absolute essential tool to have on hand if you are going to be in tick infested areas. Here is the recommendation from Health Canada on how to safely remove a tick:
- Using clean tweezers, carefully grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible. Pull slowly upward, but try not to twist or crush the tick.
- Once the tick is removed, wash the area where you were bitten with soap and water. You may also disinfect the area with alcohol or hand sanitizer. Wash your hands with soap and water.
If parts of the tick’s mouth break off and remain in your skin, remove them with tweezers. Visit your health care provider if you cannot remove:
- parts of the tick’s mouth in your skin
- the tick itself because it has buried itself deep into your skin
There are various tick removing tools on the market you can try. I can’t really give you an opinion on any of them because I just use tweezers. As long as they enable you to pull the tick straight out with no twisting or turning they should be ok.
Once you’ve removed the tick, if you’d like to have it sent off for testing you can do that in several provinces. You can find that information here. There is now a tick test, aptly called Tick Test, available in Canada now that enables people to do a quick test on a tick that has bitten them to check for bacteria. Because this not a “medicine” it is not regulated. I have no opinion on this product other than to say use with caution. I don’t know how accurate it is AND remember that just because it may show the tick was positive for the Lyme bacteria doesn’t mean you are infected with the Lyme bacteria. And as far as I can tell by my brief search on this product it does not test for any other bacteria that ticks are known to carry (remember Rocky Mountain Fever?).
I hear the ticks are bad this year (they were bad last year too). In Saskatchewan they were reports of them coming out in March which is very early. We have our first camping trip planned in a couple of weeks so I guess I will find out then!