Whether you are an avid hiker or just enjoy getting outdoors for some fresh air every now and then, you have probably been advised to “do a tick check” after spending time outdoors. Chances are you have a general idea of what ticks are and why you wouldn’t want any on your body, but in this blog, we get right down to the nitty gritty about ticks to help you better understand what they are, why they are a health concern, and how you can best protect yourself!
What exactly is a tick?
Ticks are a type of arachnid, related to but different from spiders, mites, and lice. These creatures are parasitic, meaning they feed on the blood of a host organism such as birds, deer, mice, and other large and small mammals. The life cycle of a tick takes around two years to complete.
In spring, a female tick will lay an egg sack containing 1,500-2,000 eggs and then it will die. Once the eggs hatch, they become larvae. Larvae only have six legs. After larvae mature, they enter the nymph stage. Nymphs are around the size of a poppy seed and are active in spring and early summer. Around July nymph activity starts to slow down. Following the nymph stage, is the adult stage. Adult ticks are active all year round if the temperature is above freezing. While nymphs are able to transmit various diseases, adult ticks are twice as likely to be carrying a pathogen.
Where do ticks live?
Ticks thrive in the leaf litter in deciduous forests where there are more deer and small mammals to feed on, it is in these areas you are most likely to run into a tick. Ticks do not fly, jump, or hop, they crawl on vegetation and will attach themselves to mammals (humans and pets included!) that brush up next to the leaves or branches upon which they are perched.
In Canada there are currently around 40 different species of ticks. The ones that concern us most here in Ontario are the dog tick and the blacklegged tick, also known as the deer tick (Ixodes scapularis). Blacklegged/deer ticks may transmit Lyme Disease. Dog ticks do not transmit Lyme disease but can transmit rocky mountain fever, however, this bacteria is rare in Ontario. The image below shows the differences between blacklegged and dog ticks. Groundhog ticks are known to prefer animal hosts like groundhogs, skunks, and foxes, however it is not unheard of for them to bite humans. These ticks are known carriers of Powassan disease. Powassan disease is rare, but on the rise with increasing tick populations, most of the cases are located in the North Eastern regions of North America. Research to this point has not concluded that groundhog ticks carry Lyme disease.
What is Lyme disease and how do ticks carry it?
The main reason ticks are such a concern is due to their ability to spread Tick Borne Pathogens (TBP). The deer tick is a vector for a handful of pathogens, this means that if a tick feeds on an animal that has a pathogen, for example Lyme disease, the tick acts like a vehicle and will transport this bacteria to its next host. These pathogens don’t necessarily make the original host sick, for example Lyme disease does not impact the deer or the tick, but this bacteria can make humans very sick. This is how zoonotic diseases like COVID-19, West Nile, and Influenza spread and can potentially infect new species if given the chance to mutate.
The major TBP we are concerned with in Ontario is Lyme disease. The first recognized disease outbreak originated in Lyme, Connecticut in the early 1970s. At the time, children and adults were seeking medical attention for joint pain, chronic fatigue, headaches, fevers, rashes, and paralysis. These ailments went undiagnosed throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was two mothers in this region who became advocates for their undiagnosed community members and started doing their research and contacting scientists. The disease eventually became known as Lyme disease, even before scientists knew what caused it. It wasn’t until 1981 that scientist Willy Burgdorfer found a connection between deer ticks and the sick patients. He discovered the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, the cause of Lyme disease.
Ticks have developed features that help them go undetected while feeding on a host. The saliva of a tick has various proteins that fight the host’s immune system, allowing the tick to go unnoticed while it feeds for days. Some of these proteins work to stop blood from clotting so the tick can keep feeding. The good news though, is that the process that the tick uses to go unnoticed while it feeds, takes some time. This lowers the risk of contracting any TBP if you find and remove a tick within 24 hours of it getting on you.
Lyme disease is the number one reported vector-borne disease in the USA, but may be ten times more prevalent than reported. Typically, people develop a rash between three and thirty days after infection. However, only 30% of those infected with Lyme disease will get the classic bulls-eye rash formation. Some of the symptoms of Lyme disease include: fatigue, rash, headache, and joint pain. If the disease goes untreated, more severe symptoms may develop such as: severe arthritis, heart infection, or other neurological issues. A great deal of research is being conducted to learn more about this pathogen and how to properly identify, treat, and cure this illness. While there is currently no vaccine, there are antibiotic treatments. The end of this article lists ways to prevent and remove ticks.
Why am I hearing about ticks on the news more often?
Ticks and the pathogens they carry have existed for thousands of years, so why has there been increasing concern about these creatures in more recent years? The first reason has to do with an increase in edge habitat due to human development, and the second is related to climate change.
Increasing fragmentation of forests creates more edge habitat, the area between forests and developed areas. Edge habitat is a favourite of white-tailed deer, the primary host organism of ticks. Increased edge habitat has not only increased tick habitat, but allows ticks and deer to be in closer contact with humans and transmit various tick borne pathogens with ease. This is said to be the reason for the initial spike of tick borne illnesses in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s.
Ticks, specifically deer ticks or the blacklegged tick, have not always been a concern here in Ontario. However, with shorter, less intense winters due to climate change, ticks have been expanding their range, moving further north into Ontario and the northern United States. With warmer, less intense winters, ticks are not killed off by freezing winter temperatures. This warmer weather has also extended the tick populations’ active period, increasing the risk of contracting tick borne viruses later into the year, possibly even during the winter months if the temperature remains above freezing. This is a problem not only for the spread of tick borne pathogens in humans, but also for wildlife.
An animal that has unfortunately fallen prey to ticks expanding their range is the moose. During the winter a moose calf can be host to 40,000 ticks. Affected moose will try to replace their blood supply that the ticks are drinking, but they don’t have enough protein in their diet to do so. Their inability to replace their blood supply is what ultimately leads to their death. Tick infested moose are referred to as “ghost moose” as they have patches of fur missing from itching against trees and they are overall much thinner, giving them a ghostly appearance. Tick infestations later result in anemia, lethargy, and finally death. A study conducted in North New Hampshire and western Maine, showed that 70% of the moose calves in the study’s population died in a three-year period. To read more about this study please see the following link: https://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/full/10.1139/cjz-2018-0140#.Xy2ofxNKg1J
Tick prevention is the first line of defense to protect yourself from Tick Borne Pathogens (TBP). Here is a list of ways you can prevent tick bites while still enjoying the outdoors:
- Wear close toed shoes, long pants, and tuck pant legs into your socks.
- Wear lighter colour clothing which will allow you to more easily spot ticks if they end up on your clothing.
- After being outdoors and before entering your car or house, do a tick check. Even when engorged, ticks in their nymph stage are tiny and can be hard to spot so take a good close inspection, making sure to check all your clothes and crevasses. You can also put your clothes in the dryer on high for 10 min to kill any ticks that may be on your clothes that might attach to other people or pets in the house.
- Take a shower after coming indoors; this is a good way of rinsing off ticks that have not attached to you yet.
- Make sure your pets do not bring ticks inside the house where you can be exposed at a later time. Getting tick medication for your dogs and for your cats (if they have access to the outdoors) is a great preventative measure for not only your health, but also for the health of your pet.
- Be aware, but not afraid. Arm yourself with knowledge.
How to spot, remove, and monitor tick bites
- If you are outside in tick habitat frequently, purchasing a “tick key” may be worthwhile. These are specially made to help remove ticks from your skin and can be kept on your keys when you are out in tick country.
- If you do find a tick on you, remove the tick as soon as possible. Hold the tick gently with the tweezers, as close to its head as possible, and pull it out slowly. It is important to clean the area and apply a bandage if necessary. Place the tick in a container.
Note: When trying to extract the tick, the barbed straw (not the head) may break off. This will eventually fall out like a sliver would.
DO NOT smother the tick in Vaseline, set them on fire, pour gasoline, nail polish, or other chemicals on the tick.
- Identifying the tick is important as dog ticks do not carry Lyme Disease. Contact your local Health Unit if you need help with tick identification: http://www.health.gov.on.ca/en/common/system/services/phu/locations.aspx or give the tick to a health care provider. It will be sent to a laboratory for testing.
Or send a picture of the tick to the eTick website. All you need is a cell phone to take a picture and upload it directly to the website. Successfully uploaded, species identification is available within 48 hours.
- Remember not all ticks will transmit disease, but it is important to monitor any possible tick bite, wash the area with soap and water, and monitor for signs and symptoms of illness that could be related to the tick bite of various species in your area.
- If you experience symptoms such as fever, muscle or joint pain, chills, headache, fatigue, various types of rashes, or see a red bulls-eye, seek medical attention through your local Health Unit, medical clinic, or family doctor.
Some tick bites can have severe symptoms, but they are also easy to prevent and treat when caught early.
Mackenzie Ruffo is returning to the Georgian Bay Biosphere as an interpretive guide this summer. This fall she will be returning to the University of Guelph to complete her final year in her degree in Microbiology. She is excited to apply and merge her knowledge of microbiology with her various roles at the biosphere (water quality, lichen, algae, and education.