Here’s what you need to know as tick season arrives

Spring temperatures usher in the start of tick season in Nova Scotia.

The biggest concern is bites from black-legged ticks, which can carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, an infectious disease.

The Department of Health considers most of mainland Nova Scotia high risk for Lyme disease. This year, it has also added Cape Breton County, which encompasses the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, to that list.

Steve Sutherland, the host of CBC Cape Breton’s Information Morning, spoke with Dr. Daniela Kempkens, the medical officer of health for the eastern region of Nova Scotia.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Why has the Department of Health changed the risk status for CBRM from lower to higher?

Nova Scotia has a very suitable climate for tick populations. Black-legged ticks survive best in areas that provide a very moist environment, and they’re often found in or near forested areas, long grass, fallen leaves, stuff like that.

In 2017, the entire province of Nova Scotia was declared an at-risk area. Every year the classification for each county is reviewed to determine whether it’s lower, moderate or high risk. That’s based on human data on Lyme disease cases, as well as data on ticks.

So when the department reviewed the data for Cape Breton County this year, they had to make the determination that it has gone from a lower to a high risk. But it is important to stress that there is a risk for black-legged ticks and Lyme disease across the entire province.

What is the risk from having black-legged ticks?

We have several ticks in Nova Scotia and black-legged ticks are the only ones that carry Lyme disease. If you’re bitten by a tick, it doesn’t mean you will get Lyme disease. It depends on the type of tick that has bitten you, and then the tick needs to carry the bacteria that can cause Lyme disease. And, very importantly, it also depends on how long the tick has been attached.

The risk only increases if the tick has been attached for 24 hours or more. So it’s very important that if you are in the outdoors, and you come back inside, that you check yourself and your children for ticks to make sure that you catch them early and remove them before they have been attached for more than 24 hours.

An adult female Lyme disease tick shown with a quarter for scale. (CBC)

Where should you check?

You should check your entire body. But they like warm and moist areas, so especially check your armpits, the area around your groin, your waist and behind the knees.
    
And what are you looking for?

When ticks haven’t been attached a long time, or depending on what stage in the life cycle they are, they can be really small and not easy to spot. You’re looking for a little black dot that’s attached somewhere, and if you find that you would take tweezers, just regular ones that you have around your house. You grab the tick with tweezers as close to the skin as possible, and you gently and slowly pull the tick straight out of the skin. It’s very important not to jerk or twist or squeeze it.

Once the tick is removed, you clean the area of the bite with soap and water. They have different sizes, depending on their life cycle, so it’s recommended that you have a shower after you come in from the outdoors within two hours. That will help wash away any ticks that haven’t attached themselves yet.

How do they get on you?

Ticks don’t jump. They don’t fly. They climb up in shrubs or long grass. They wait for a warm body like a pet or a human to brush by and then they can attach themselves to you. It’s really that contact to the brush or the leaves that’s necessary.

And the idea is you don’t want to squeeze the body when you’re removing it because that squeezes the stuff into you?

That’s right, you just want to gently hold the tick, and pull it up slowly and straight up, to remove it.  And then it’s also important to dispose of it properly. You want to either flush it down the toilet, you can drown it in rubbing alcohol, or even freeze it in a plastic bag and then dispose of it in your normal household garbage. 

This ‘bull’s-eye’ rash is a typical symptom of Lyme disease. (Novascotia.ca)

You shouldn’t keep it to identify it?

The general public is not asked to submit ticks.

I’m wondering if you kept it, someone could say yes, that was a black-legged tick, you could be at risk?

Even if it was a black-legged tick, we don’t know if that tick was infected with the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. So really, if you had a tick bite, you should watch out for signs and symptoms that could develop in three to 30 days.

You would look for a rash. Sometimes that looks like a bull’s-eye, but also some more unspecific symptoms like fever, chills, headache, feeling tired, aching muscles and joints, and maybe swollen lymph nodes, and if you have those symptoms, you should definitely go to see your primary-care provider.

And if you did remove a tick from yourself or one of your kids, it would be smart to write down the date, and the location on your body, so you can give your health-care provider a little more information about how much time has gone by since the tick bit you.