Summer is Here and the Ticks are Hungry

If you're not worried about ticks, maybe you should be.

If you asked me one year ago if I was concerned about ticks, I would have shrugged. Bugs and disease do not keep me awake at night. West Nile? Pssshh… I’m getting bit by mosquitos every day, but I’m losing no sleep.

When news started to circulate about tick populations growing in our area of Eastern Ontario, I didn’t feel any panic. As a health researcher, I focus on the numbers – so if my risk of contracting some kind of disease is slim, I don’t give it a second thought.

Then I went to do a little research of my own – and the numbers started to bother me. The cases of Lyme disease have jumped substantially in Ottawa over the past few years. When I chatted with other parents, I heard stories of family members, neighbours, and friends struggling with debilitating illness. I decided to have a little chat with the experts to get the lowdown on ticks and Lyme disease.

“Whatever Public Health or people are saying about Lyme disease, multiply that by one hundred - it’s really that bad,” says Dr. Marie Matheson, a Naturopathic Doctor that treats patients for Lyme and associated infections. Children affected with Lyme sometimes struggle to walk and can miss a lot of school.

Dr. Matheson also lists off an alarmingly high number of other infections that ticks can carry – things like Ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Babesia, Bartonella and Powassan virus to name just a few.

Next on my list of experts to chat with was an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa. Dr. Manisha Kulkarni studies tick populations in Eastern Ontario using satellite imagery and other spatial data, and then she creates risk maps for the region.

 “The risk of acquiring Lyme disease in an area with a 20 per cent infection rate is about 6 per cent,” says Dr. Kulkarni. She also points to research that shows an infection peak in children between 5 and 15 years old, and then another peak in older adults between 50 and 60 years old.

Gulp….maybe I’m not sleeping so soundly these days.

If you live in an area where tick populations are quite low, this may not be a concern for you. But as a word of warning – THEY ARE COMING. Tick populations are spreading rapidly, and are being carried on migratory birds and mammals.

So what’s a parent to do? Put your kid in a bubble? (Helpful, although not realistic.) Avoid the outdoors? (And let your kid become obese? Never!!) Stay awake all night worrying about disease, death, and the end of your life? (OK, maybe you do that anyway.)

The best way to deal with anxiety over these types of risks is to arm your family with information and strategies. Hiding in your bed all summer is NOT a strategy.

Preventing tick bites

  • Spray: use a 20% DEET or 20% Icaridin (less toxic) repellant. But don’t worry so much about the chemicals when you are headed into an at-risk area.
  • Take the long way ‘round: don’t walk through tall grass, and (sorry kiddos) no more jumping in leaf piles! We’ll have to make other happy childhood memories that don’t involve leaves.
  • Dress for success: wear long pants, and tuck your pants into your socks. If you can. This one does NOT work for my kids. I can’t get them to wear underwear, let alone socks.
  • Brush it off: use a sticky lint roller or a mini broom to quickly brush your clothes off so that you don’t bring the ticks into your home.
  • Check your kids: when you come in from a hike or time in the woods, check your body’s dark, damp areas – think armpits, groin, hairline, and in between the toes. Those buggers like to hide.
  • Take a shower and wash the bastards down the drain.

If you DO find an embedded tick, please please please do NOT try to douse it with soap, essential oils, rubbing alcohol, coconut oil, or any other crap you think might help the situation. This will only stress the little bug, and they’ll vomit their diseased stomach contents into your bloodstream. Remove a tick (careful, no squeezing) with flat-edged tweezers or a tick key. Then plop the bugger into a container and head to your local public health unit for testing.

After this, what you do for treatment is up for debate. Many healthcare providers are only treating if the tick has been attached for longer than 24 hours. But recall can be a problem – how do we know when it attached? I’d be requesting antibiotics regardless of the time, but that’s a personal decision you have to make with your doc.

Take it from someone who used to be a tick-skeptic: nothing is ever that serious until we experience it ourselves. Save yourself (and your kid) the heartache and take some precautions.



Misty is a freelance writer with Chickadee Creative and voice for the Ottawa blog Kids in the Capital. A part-time health researcher with the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, Misty manages giant spreadsheets and is passionate about evidence-based medicine. A mother to two young girls and owner of one adopted pug named Moose, Misty also shares her life with a husband and partner-in-crime. When she's not writing, you can find Misty out in her giant vegetable patch, in the kitchen experimenting with the latest health craze, or trying to unwind with some yoga (a good bottle of wine also does the trick!)