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How to Protect Yourself Against Ticks and Lyme Disease

Here’s how to avoid tick bites and what to do if you suspect that you have Lyme disease.

A small tick is shown on a plant

If you’re planning to do some social distancing in the great outdoors this spring, keep your eyes out for blacklegged ticks. The tiny arachnids can be found throughout Ontario, even cities like Toronto, anytime the temperature is above freezing.

A bite from a blacklegged tick can cause Lyme disease, with symptoms ranging from body aches and stiffness in the neck, to cognitive problems, like memory loss. In recent years, Canada has seen a surge in cases of Lyme disease. In 2017, there were 2,025 cases reported, that’s up from only 144 cases in 2009.

The safety of our CAA Members is important, in all aspects of your lives. With that in mind, here’s everything you need to know about ticks and Lyme disease.

Where do you find ticks?

The short answer: everywhere. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, there are Lyme hotspots from Victoria to Halifax. Lyme-carrying ticks are also endemic to most of southern Ontario, including the valleys in and around Toronto, says Dr. Tim Cook, who runs P3 Health, a clinic that specializes in Lyme disease.

Where and when are you likely to be bitten?

Ticks are most commonly found in wooded areas. You run the greatest risk of being bitten in the summer, says the Public Health Agency of Canada. But Cook, who sat on an Ontario Lyme disease task force, cautions that ticks can bite humans and infect them with Lyme disease in temperatures as low as 4 degrees Celsius.

How can you prevent bites?

If you’re going for a walk in a tick-infested area, the Public Health Agency of Canada recommends wearing long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. It’s also recommended that you wear light-coloured clothing, which makes ticks easier to spot.

Tuck your shirt into your pants and pull your socks up over your pant legs. Also douse yourself with bug spray that includes DEET or Icaridin, another insect repellent. Finally, once you’re back inside have someone check you from head to toe for ticks, which resemble sesame seeds.

How do you remove a tick?

The best way is with a set of tweezers specially designed to remove ticks, says Cook. If you don’t have those, you can use regular tweezers, but make sure you grab the tick underneath its head and pull up gently. Do not squeeze the tick. That could cause it to regurgitate its meal—and the bacteria that causes Lyme disease—into your system.

What are the symptoms of Lyme disease?

Early signs include a bulles-eye-type rash, though those aren’t a given. Around a week after being bitten, Cook says many patients get flu-like symptoms, including body aches and stiffness in their neck. The disease can also cause cognitive problems, like memory loss and brain fog, along with tingling or numbness in the fingers and toes. Once the disease has taken hold, the consequences can be debilitating. Many people with long-term Lyme disease suffer from chronic fatigue and are unable to work.

Is it difficult to be diagnosed with Lyme?

Yes. Lyme is hard to diagnose because its symptoms mimic those of many other conditions. “It’s the great masquerader,” Cook says. At the same time, the disease is often not well-understood by family doctors and many are reluctant to order tests through the public health system. “The really sad thing is that patients fall through the cracks of conventional medicine,” Cook says. As a starting point, Cook says anyone who suspects they might have Lyme fill out this questionnaire, which is developed by a leading Lyme disease expert in the United States, and speak with their physician.

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Image credit: iStock.com/ErikKarits