Spring is here, finally, and the weather is much more enjoyable to be outside. But some of the critters that inhabit natural areas have been awaiting spring as well, and they may be hazardous to your health. Ticks need a blood meal to assist in their development, and before they produce young.
Ticks can occur in long grassy and shrubby areas:
They can also occur in more heavily wooded areas:
There are actually at least 17 kinds of ticks found in southern Ontario, but the two that are most likely to be found on humans are: the Wood Tick (a.k.a. American Dog Tick) and the Black-legged Tick (a.k.a. Deer Tick). Technically they are not insects, which have six legs. They are Invertebrates, as are insects, but part of the Arachnid group which includes spiders; members of this group have eight legs.
This first photo is a close-up of a Black-legged Tick (Deer Tick).
If you want to get a better idea of its size, note the next photo.
An adult Wood Tick, on the other hand, is several times the size of the Deer Tick. Note this next photo of a Wood Tick, and compare the colouration and pattern with the Deer Tick.
In many cases of a tick bite, nothing will happen. In fact Wood Ticks are not known to be vectors of Lyme Disease (LD) at all, only the Deer Tick. (Having said that, there is concern by some that other biting invertebrates including Wood Ticks which bite a host critter carrying LD may spread the disease, but nothing is conclusive yet.) Not even all Deer Tick bites will do damage. However some ticks do carry the spirochete that when transmitted via its bite, will result in the victim getting LD.
If you happen to get bitten by a Deer Tick carrying the LD spirochete, things may then become quite interesting, but not in a good way.
First stage symptoms typically result in the victim feeling like they are coming down with the flu.....e.g. tired, fatigue, sore and aching muscles. These are telltale symptoms, especially if it isn't a normal season for getting the flu. A more conclusive indication of dealing with LD is noticing a rash. It isn't normally itchy, but it may feel warm. It may take on different appearances, but usually will spread to become several centimetres in diameter and then start to clear in the middle, resulting in some form of a 'bull's-eye' rash. If it occurs in an area of the body that isn't visible to the person, one could easily miss it. It is believed that only 30-40% of LD tick bites result in a bull's-eye rash, but that low % may be because by the time a person gets properly assessed, the rash may have disappeared on its own, or it may occur in an area that is not visible. Regardless, don't rely on the presence of or lack of a bull's-eye rash to determine whether you have LD.....the flu-like symptoms are more reliable.
I have had the misfortune to have been bitten over the years by a LD carrying Deer Tick on at least 6 occasions. The first time was in 1976, when LD was not on anyone's radar for the Rondeau area. In fact at that time it was believed that LD only occurred in the greater Long Point area. I know of several field biologist colleagues or acquaintances who contracted LD from field work at Long Point in the 1960s and early 1970s.
All of my occurrences were from my extensive field time at Rondeau. As the former Park Naturalist who spent as much time as possible roaming around the park looking to document and photograph plants, birds, herps and almost anything else of natural history interest, I was often well off the trail, and if anyone was likely to get LD, it was me. Rondeau has been a favourite place of mine to explore going back to the late 1960s and continues to this day. Every year I spend hundreds of hours in the field in my quest to discover, document and photograph Rondeau's biodiversity. In one sense, considering how much time I have spent roaming the wilds of Rondeau over the decades, it is surprising I have only contracted LD a few times. But that is okay......6 times is enough!
On four of these occasions, I noticed a rash. The photographer in me decided to take some photos to document my experience so here is what the rash can look like. The first image shows the bull's-eye rash on my forearm that I received in 2006. The very circular rash was quite pinkish, and as it expanded, eventually showed the clearing in the middle.
This third image brings us to 2015. Some readers will be aware of my ongoing interest to document some of Rondeau's largest trees which feature old growth characteristics. I've collected data to include the diameter, species and GPS location. And most of the almost 275 trees I've documented in the last couple of months have been well off the trail, not surprisingly. A little over two weeks ago I woke up one morning and found a Deer Tick which had attached itself to my lower leg. I consider myself reasonably vigilant when it comes to ticks, yet this one escaped my initial checks. However by the time I noticed it, it had been squashed, and all the blood that it had engorged on had been forced back under my skin. At first there was just the very dark centre which featured the regurgitated blood. But after a few days, the rash appeared. After a couple more days, the centre started to clear. If it hadn't been for the regurgitated blood at the centre of the tick bite, I am sure the entire centre would be clear.
I experienced the first stage symptoms of LD once again....extreme tiredness, aching muscles, feeling like I was getting the flu. A visit to the doctor was necessary, and now I am on antibiotics for three weeks. Taking antibiotics means, among other things, that I should avoid spending much time in the sun. So I must limit my time on bright sunny days and plan my outings, if I feel up to it, during the cooler morning or evening hours when the sun is not as intense. Also I try and cover up as much as possible. Hopefully by the time I am finished my current round of antibiotics, that will conclude this episode of LD.
It wasn't that long ago that LD was not recognized by the traditional medical establishment as occurring in Chatham-Kent. The standard response from many was that while it may occur in the US, it only occurred in Canada in very restricted areas (e.g. Long Point), and in very low numbers. In fact when I was diagnosed with it in 2004, it was a reportable disease, so shortly after I visited the doctor and got antibiotics, I got a follow-up telephone call from someone in the local health unit who told me "You know, Mr. Woodliffe, Lyme Disease doesn't occur in Chatham-Kent." Unbeknownst to this person, confirmation of LD carrying ticks in C-K had been published in a medical journal two years before! But at the time, the front line medical personnel here and in most other places in Canada, as directed by Health Canada, refused to believe that LD was as widespread as it really was.
Fortunately the level of knowledge and understanding of LD since then has increased dramatically across Canada. As unfortunate as it is in contracting LD, when celebrities get it (note the recent publicity concerning Avril Lavigne), the general public as well as the politicians and medical professionals will hopefully gain a better awareness and understanding of this serious disease. Awareness is far from ideal, but much improved from only a short time ago.
One of many complicating factors in assessing and treating LD is that if you catch it in its earliest stages, it is easily treatable with antibiotics, usually for a 3-4 week period. But if it is missed, even though the first stage symptoms can disappear and one feels like it is behind you, the spirochete remains, and can attack different systems in your body. Each person reacts differently, presumably depending on the initial health of the person. The condition of the immune system is undoubtedly a factor, as is where the spirochete ends up. In extreme cases, some people have become quite crippled in just a few weeks. In other cases, LD has been mis-diagnosed as Multiple Sclerosis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, and other serious conditions. Treatment for such conditions is very expensive, unlike the inexpensive antibiotic treatment for LD.
|Deer Tick territory|
This post is not going to address the vast misunderstandings of assessing and treating LD. However improper treatment at the outset can result in Chronic Lyme Disease, which is extremely difficult to assess and treat.There have been many, many scientific and other articles written discussing the health science and politics around this challenging disease which can affect people in so many different ways. One of the most authoritative sources of information on the subject is the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation. Check out its extensive web site here.
The best way to deal with the potential risks of LD is to avoid it if you can. Don't just stay at home and avoid natural areas, but play it smart. Some recommendations are:
- wherever possible, avoid grassy, shrubby areas in areas where LD is known to occur;
- wear light coloured and unpatterned clothing so if a tick grasps it as you pass by, it is more easily spotted;
- stay on the trail to avoid brushing by shrubs or other vegetation where ticks may be;
- if you are hiking with a friend or co-worker, keep an eye out for ticks on each other;
- wear long pants, socks and shoes, not shorts and sandals;
- tuck pant legs into your socks. It may not be the most fashionable, but it will help keep any ticks on the outside and more easily spotted for removal before they do their dastardly deed;
- spray repellent with DEET around socks and shoes;
- there are some products available at outdoor stores which can be sprayed on clothing (not skin!)....the applied chemical on the clothing must be completely dry before you wear them. This can repel and kill ticks and other biting insects (e.g. chiggers) for several weeks, and last for at least a couple of washings;
- if you have a pet with you, they are just as vulnerable to ticks as you are, so should be checked as soon as possible when you leave a potentially infested area. Otherwise, they may share their ticks with you at a later date;
- when you come in from an area where Deer Ticks are known, do a tick check as soon as possible;
- put clothes you have been wearing in tick habitat, into a safe container, even directly into a washing machine. It is not advisable to leave them in the room that you will be sleeping in, as any ticks that may have been on your clothing might find you while you sleep!
This blog post is not intended to diagnose or treat Lyme Disease. The intent is to share my experiences with LD carrying Deer Ticks, hopefully raising awareness of the dangers of enjoying infested areas, while doing so relatively safely.
|Walk in the middle of the trail to avoid vegetation where ticks may be lurking.|