Ticks & Lyme Disease
Ontarians are fortunate to have an abundance of wilderness that provides us with ample opportunity to enjoy the outdoors. But one thing to keep in mind when outside – especially in areas that are forested or have tall grasses, weeds or many shrubs – is Lyme disease.
In Ontario, Lyme disease is spread to humans by the bite of an infected blacklegged tick. Lyme disease can be serious, and health officials are seeing an increase in the number of cases in the province.
In the 1990s, only one region in Ontario was endemic with blacklegged ticks that carry Lyme disease. As of 2016, at least 12 areas of southern Ontario are considered endemic regions. This is likely due to increasingly favourable conditions for ticks including: natural range expansion aided in part by climate warming, lengthening summer and fall seasons, and possible changes in the range of key hosts for ticks such as the white-tailed deer.
Blacklegged ticks occur sporadically over a wide geographic range in Canada which is partly due to the fact that the larvae and nymph stages of the blacklegged tick readily attach to migratory birds. Birds serve to transport blacklegged ticks from endemic areas in the United States and Canada to the rest of the country. This puts humans at risk for acquiring a tick almost anywhere in Ontario. All tick surveillance indicators suggest that the current range of blacklegged tick populations is expanding and will likely continue to do so in the future.
What is Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection in humans caused by the bacterial agent Borrelia burgdorferi. Humans can get this infection from the bite of a blacklegged tick (also known as a deer tick) that carries the bacterium. An infected tick will most likely pass the bacterium to a human when it has been attached for at least 24-36 hours. Ticks become infected with the B. burgdorferi bacteria after feeding on birds and small animals such as mice and squirrels, which are natural carriers of these bacteria. Not all blacklegged ticks carry Borrelia burgdorferi.
What are blacklegged ticks?
Blacklegged ticks are slow moving, non-flying parasites that are closely related to spiders and mites. Adult blacklegged ticks are typically red and dark brown in colour and very small (1 to 5 mm in length) when unfed. Young ticks or nymphs are lighter in colour and even smaller in size. As ticks feed, they can grow to the size of a grape. All active stages of ticks feed on blood in order to grow and develop.
Where can you find blacklegged ticks?
Ticks can be found in wooded or marshland areas as well as places with tall grasses and bushes. In Ontario, locations with well-established blacklegged tick populations include:
- Long Point peninsula including Long Point Provincial Park and the National Wildlife
- Pinery Provincial Park
- Point Pelee National Park
- Prince Edward County
- Parts of the Thousand Islands National Park
- Rondeau Provincial Park
- Rouge Valley and areas of Toronto and Durham
- Turkey Point Provincial Park
- Wainfleet bog region near Welland
Tick populations in Ontario are expanding into new regions of the province, including Eastern Ontario. Ticks can attach themselves to migratory birds and travel anywhere in the province, so it is important to be "tick smart" anytime you are travelling to a potential tick habitat. People can come in contact with blacklegged ticks, or be infected with Lyme disease, almost anywhere in Ontario.
2016 Lyme Disease Risk Areas Map
For additional endemic regions in Canada, please visit the surveillance section of the Public Health Agency of Canada.
For information about the risk for contracting Lyme disease while travelling to other countries, please visit the World Health Organization (WHO).
To maintain ticks around your home and vacation property, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on preventing ticks in the yard.
What are the signs and symptoms of Lyme disease?
The signs of Lyme disease can be categorized into 3 different stages:
Stage 1: The first sign of infection is usually a circular rash in the shape of a bull’s eye, however not everyone that becomes infected with Lyme disease will develop this rash. Additional signs and symptoms include fever, chills, headache, muscle and joint pain, fatigue and swollen lymph nodes. Once bitten by an infected blacklegged tick, it can take anywhere from 3 days to one month for these signs and symptoms to appear.
Stage 2: Signs and symptoms of later stage infection include migraines, weakness, multiple skin rashes, painful or stiff joints, abnormal heartbeat and extreme fatigue. The second stage of Lyme disease can last several months.
Stage 3: If untreated late stage symptoms can include chronic arthritis and neurological symptoms, headaches, dizziness, numbness and paralysis. The third stage of the disease can last up to several years if untreated. However, it is rare for the symptoms of Lyme disease to become this severe because the disease is often treated in the earlier stages. Death from Lyme disease is also rare. During pregnancy, Lyme disease can pose serious health risks to the baby.
What is the diagnosis and treatment for Lyme disease?
Lyme disease in its early stages is difficult to detect through blood tests. Early diagnosis of Lyme disease requires an assessment of signs and symptoms, as well as relevant travel history to tick habitat, and Lyme disease risk areas. As Lyme disease progresses, blood tests are able to detect and confirm Lyme infection. Antibiotics are used to treat Lyme disease, and in most cases, if antibiotic treatment begins early, the patient is cured in 2-4 weeks.
If you are bitten by a tick, safely remove it and bring it to Peterborough Public Health in a pill bottle or zipper locked bag. The tick will be sent to the Public Health Laboratory for species identification. If the tick is identified as a blacklegged tick, it will then be sent for analysis to determine if it is carrying Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterial agent of Lyme disease. All results of identification and analysis will be communicated to you and your physician, if required.
How common is infection?
In Canada, as the climate gets warmer the risk of infection will increase as blacklegged ticks are able to thrive in more northern locations. For the most up to date information on the prevalence of Lyme disease in Ontario and Canada please visit the following websites:
How can I be "Tick Smart"?
The key to preventing Lyme disease is doing what you can to protect yourself and your home. Since ticks can potentially travel to all areas of the province, it is important to be safe when entering any wooded area, especially those with documented tick populations. When entering these areas be sure to take the following personal precautions:
- Wear long clothing when outdoors. This includes long-sleeved shirts, long pants and socks. Shirts should be tucked into pants and pants tucked into socks.
- Wear light coloured clothing. Ticks are more visible on light coloured materials. This will help you see and remove the tick.
- Use an insect repellent containing DEET. Apply insect repellent sparingly to your clothing and exposed skin to keep ticks away. Do not apply bug repellent under clothing and always follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
- When hiking be sure to keep to the middle of the trail to minimize your contact with tall grasses and bushes. These are potential spots where ticks can be found.
- Check your clothing and entire body for ticks after returning from being outdoors. Pay special attention to hidden areas like the groin, armpit, scalp, and back of the knee. You can use a mirror to do this or have someone help you.
- Check pets for ticks because pets can also pick ticks up from outdoor areas. Although Lyme disease cannot be passed from a pet to a human, animals can bring ticks into your home. It is important to check your pets regularly.
- Take a shower as soon as you can after being outdoors to wash off any ticks crawling on you.
- Place outdoor clothing through the dryer cycle for 60 minutes on high heat before washing. Ticks thrive in wet environments and will not survive the heat of the dryer.
It is also important to be “tick smart” around your house, especially if you live near a wooded area. Ticks need a humid environment to survive and this can be created by plant debris and litter. Therefore, keep your lawn neatly mowed and remove leaf debris on a regular basis. This helps to reduce humidity in your yard and lowers your risk of coming across a tick.
Venturing into tick habitat? Don’t forget to pack a safe tick removal kit this summer.
How do I remove a tick?
If you are bitten by a tick, be sure to stay calm, but remove the tick immediately. Follow the steps below to safely remove a tick from your body:
- Remove the tick using a pair of clean, fine-tipped tweezers. Never use fire, chemicals or alcohol to remove a tick.
- Holding the tweezers parallel to the skin, firmly grasp the tick as close to your skin as possible, around the mouthparts of the tick, and gently pull the tick straight out.
- Do not twist or squeeze the tick because this may cause the mouth parts to break off and stay in the skin. Squeezing may also cause the Lyme disease-causing bacterium to enter the body.
- Wash the area where the tick was removed with soap and water and/or disinfect with rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer.
- If the mouthparts break off and remain in the skin, remove them with tweezers, or if you are unable to remove them easily, leave them alone and let the skin heal.
- If you are not comfortable removing a tick, see a health care provider as soon as possible. If the tick is removed soon after attachment, it will help to prevent infection, as an infected tick has to be feeding for at least 24 hours before it can effectively transmit the bacteria to a human host.
- Once the tick has been removed, place the tick in an empty pill bottle or plastic zipper-closed bag and bring it to Peterborough Public Health. Make sure to record the date of attachment and the likely location where the tick came from. The tick will then be sent away to the Ontario Public Health Laboratory for species identification and bacterial testing.
- If you develop symptoms of Lyme disease in the weeks (3-30 days) after being bitten, contact your health care provider right away.
Tick Removal Kit
Venturing into tick habitat? Don’t forget to pack a safe tick removal kit this summer.
Tick kits should include:
- fine needle tweezers
- aseptic wipes
- rubber gloves
- container / ziplock bag to put the tick into
For information on submitting a tick please see "Submit a Tick"
A tick can be submitted to the health unit Monday to Friday between the hours of 8:30am – 4:30pm. Peterborough Public Health is located at 185 King Street, Peterborough, ON.
When bringing a tick to Peterborough Public Health, please be aware that only ticks found on humans will be submitted for identification and testing. Any ticks found on pets or other animals can be taken to a veterinarian.
Once a tick has been removed from a person’s body, we ask that you place the tick in sealed container or ziplock bag and bring into the health unit as soon as you can.
When submitting a tick you will need to provide the following information:
- full name (including middle initial) and date of birth of the person to whom the tick was attached;
- location on the body where the tick was found;
- approximate length of time the tick was attached;
- where the tick was acquired, along with recent travel history;
For more information on tick submission or general inquires about ticks please contact the Vector Borne Disease Program at Peterborough Public Health at 705-743-1000.