When wandering the woods and fields this summer, make sure you take precautions so you don’t inadvertently bring any unwanted friends home with you. While creepy crawlies are probably the last thing you want to be thinking about while enjoying a day outdoors, the reality is that ticks — those poppy seed-sized arachnids — are good at latching on and hitching a ride.
Whether you’re hiking in the forest, chasing a kite through tall grass, or rolling about in a pile of dried leaves, ticks may be hanging about waiting for an animal or person to pass by. Living near the ground, and extremely small in size (adults are between 1 and 3 millimetres), ticks are hard to detect and may carry the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi, which is the source of Lyme disease, a potentially serious illness.
Lyme disease on the rise
Present in the northeastern United States and southeastern Ontario, ticks have made their way into Quebec and can increasingly be found in Montérégie, Outaouais, Estrie, and Mauricie. There are more than a dozen varieties of the tiny creature in Quebec, but only one of them can potentially transmit Lyme disease: the Ixodes scapularis, more commonly known as the “deer tick” or “blacklegged tick”.
Generally, blacklegged ticks do not cause serious problems to human health, but according to the Quebec Government, there has been a rapid increase in the number of people infected with Lyme disease in the past decade.
Mandated by the Ministry of Health and Social Services, The Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ) offers an integrated Lyme disease surveillance program in Quebec. Between 2014 and 2019, the number of Quebecers infected with Lyme disease increased from 125 to 500, with cases seen in Montreal, Laval, and Montérégie among others. Climate warming and changes in animal migrations are thought to be increasing the rate of spread.
A map of Quebec showing the risks of acquiring Lyme disease in different regions marks parts of Montreal and surrounding areas as “risk is present”, while some nearby regions are classified as “significant (endemic area)”.
An unwelcome visitor
Ticks have three stages of development — larva, nymph, and adult — and must feed on blood to move on to the next stage. Though they cannot jump or fly, ticks will crawl up grass or low brush to latch onto whoever passes them; whether that’s a dog, cat, bird, mouse, deer, or human. Tick bites are usually painless because of an anesthetic the tick injects into the skin at its point of entry, and often go unnoticed, staying on the host to engorge itself with blood.
Ticks are mainly active when the outside temperature is between 4 and 25 degrees celsius, thus precautions need to be taken early spring until late fall, and during warm winter days when they may wake up from their dormancy. The larva is most plentiful in mid-May, while nymphs and adults take over during the summer and fall.
Luckily, there are precautions you can take to protect yourself and your family from tick bites. According to Santé Montreal, the most important measures are the following:
- Wear Insect Repellant: Use an insect repellent that contains DEET or icaridine. Note that the Montreal Children’s Hospital does not recommend DEET for use in children under two months, and DEET-containing products should be used sparingly on older children. See this page for full details or consult your pediatrician.
- Choose Proper Clothing: Wear light-coloured long pants (tucked in) and long-sleeved shirts
- Hike safely: Stay on dry open paths
- Do a thorough tick check: Once home, Check your skin and clothes
- Remove ticks quickly: If you see a tick, remove it immediately with fine-tipped tweezers or a tick card and call Info-Santé (811)
If you have a dog or indoor/outdoor cat, it’s also important to check them and their bedding regularly as they can carry infected ticks into your home.
When to consult a doctor
If a tick is infected with Borrelia burgdorferi, it usually requires that the tick stay attached to the skin for more than 24 hours for Lyme disease to be transmitted. The first symptoms of the disease usually appear between three and 30 days after a bite.
Because symptoms of Lyme disease can vary from person to person, and the “bullseye rash” isn’t present in all cases, Santé Montreal recommends calling Info-Santé at 811 or seeing a doctor if you’ve been bitten by a tick. For other regions of Quebec, you can consult the guidelines on the Government of Quebec website.
Experts agree that the outdoors is great for both mental and physical health. But next time you’re heading outdoors for some feel-good fresh air, keep these tips in mind and get into the habit of doing your tick check once you’re home.