Tick Talk

Stella Thompson

[This article appeared in the May/June 2010 issue of The SCOOP.]

I’ve been bitten twice by ticks: once in November when the weather was bitterly cold and winter was fast approaching and then in early summer. Both times I found the tick embedded in my flesh, its head and mouth parts firmly attached. My immediate reaction the first time was: Great, now I’ll get Lyme disease! Panic set in and I phoned the Health Helpline for information and assistance. The second time it happened I thought: I know this creature and I’m prepared.

Contact with a tick can happen by simply brushing against vegetation. The risk is greatest in early spring and late fall and as I found out the first time not all ticks carry Lyme disease (extremely low chances in our immediate area). The most important thing I learned was that removing a tick as quickly as possible reduces the possibility of infection. Tick bites usually cause swelling and irritation to the skin, but if the tick’s mouth parts remain in the skin, the wound will get infected.

Most people assume that ticks are insects; they’re not. Ticks are arachnids (family Ixodidae) sharing basic features with spiders and scorpions. Adult insects have three-segmented bodies, two antennae and six legs. Adult ticks have two-segmented bodies, no antennae and eight legs. The ticks that are of greatest importance to humans are known as “hard ticks” because both sexes have a hard plate covering their backs. Ticks are obligate parasites, which means that they must obtain a blood meal from a host in order to survive and reproduce.

One of the most common ticks found in eastern Ontario is the American dog tick Dermacentor variabilis. The adult dog tick prefers dogs but it will also feed on horses and other large mammals, including humans. Taking the time to check your dog frequently is a good idea and when you find one remove it with tweezers, grabbing hold of the tick as close to the point of entry as possible. Dog ticks are known to transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Some symptoms may include: headaches, a rash, a fever and general aching in the lumbar region. Best to go to your physician immediately!

Lyme disease has received a great deal of attention in the press and even though it’s been found in parts of southern and eastern Ontario (Long Point on Lake Erie and Point Pelee National Park), it is rare. Lyme disease is carried by the deer tick (black-legged tick) which has become infected by a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi. These ticks are the size of a sesame seed and therefore harder to spot than the common dog tick. Symptoms can take up to a month to appear; the most common is a growing bull’s eye rash around the site of the bite. Because the tick is so tiny, a person doesn’t realize they’ve been bitten until they start feeling really sick: fatigue, stiffness in the muscles, joints or neck, fever or swollen glands.

For someone who lives in a rural area and who loves to walk in the woods or through a pasture, it is difficult to avoid tick infested areas. Wearing protective clothing (preventing ticks from gaining access to your legs) is a great idea, but it didn’t stop the tick that managed to crawl through three layers of clothing to bite me. I think that the best thing to do is to check your body thoroughly, check your pets, if you find a tick remove it immediately using a firm tugging motion with tweezers (remember to grasp the tick at the point where the mouth parts enter the skin), clean the wound with antiseptic, and save the tick in a jar labelled with the date and location in case complications arise.

We can’t control the reproductive cycles, habits and habitat of ticks, and we don’t want to stop walking through our woods and fields, so all we can do is be vigilant and well-informed.

Don’t forget to pack a pair of tweezers when you’re camping!